Why The ‘Black Panther’ matters

In the midst of Black History Month, Marvel studios released one of its most critically acclaimed films of the last years – dare say of the decade – during an era where black identity and consciousness are more important than ever. The Black Panther, even though it follows the classical superhero formula (it is still a Marvel movie), it reaches deep levels of representing and understanding the black identity. And that is groundbreaking.

The story follows the fictional country of Wakanda in the heart of Africa, where, hidden from the rest of the world, its residents are enjoying the wealths and advantages of vibranium: a valuable and powerful mineral. This mineral is used for hundreds of years in Wakanda and has helped the area to develop technologically and socially in such a way that every western country would kill for. That is why Wakanda’s powerful king, the Black Panther, has a very important mission: protect the country and its people from anything that jeopardizes their prosperity.

But now Wakanda’s old king is dead, which means that his son T’Challa is claiming the throne. Wakanda might be a powerful and progressive state, but it stays true to African history. T’Challa needs to claim the throne through an ancient ritual where warriors of every tribe in Wakanda challenge him to a fight. T’Challa, as a rightful heir, wins the battle and becomes the king of Wakanda. He is offered to drink vibranium which gives him superhuman powers that are necessary to protect the identity and wealth of the country. He is now the Black Panther. Soon he realizes that certain amounts of vibranium have reached the global black market. With the help of his fierce warriors, T’Challa will have to bring vibranium home and ensure that the truth about Wakanda stays hidden. But he will soon be confronted by his father’s past.

The Black Panther’s story unfolds with the help of the classical narration formula, where elements of family drama merge with superhero characteristics. Ghosts of the past are appearing when a young black American, Killmonger, is desperately trying to obtain the valuable Wakanda resource. He is the movie’s villain, an outsider who is deeply defined by his own personal story; growing up in the streets of Los Angeles, he is the victim of an old mistake T’Challa’s father made. Killmonger is not the typical revengeful Marvel maniac who wants to destroy the superhero at all costs. He is much more. The film makes sure that we see his reasons, feelings and motives so that we can understand the story’s ethical dilemma: is Wakanda responsible for the black people who suffer throughout the world or should Wakanda preserve its technological innovations and stay silent?

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” – Killmonger

The king of Wakanda will do anything to protect the country’s resources and secret weapons, so that the imperialists of the world won’t exploit them, as the colonialists of the previous centuries did with Africa. But Killmonger too, would do anything to bring justice to the global black community; the powerful weapons of Wakanda will destroy anyone that ever harmed Africa and will finally give its people what they deserve. The deep political messages of the film manage to transcend its story and form, while the question pends: what is the responsibility of a wealthy African country towards the African diaspora and the world?

This film is a platform of foregrounding the identity of Africa and the history of the continent. Wakanda’s political and social status is put next to Africa’s; it represents many African countries, if those countries were left alone by the European colonial powers of the past, who ravaged the continent from its people and its wealth. Thus, Wakanda wants to be left alone and continue its progress, away from the rest of the world. It needs its isolation in order to thrive. The message, thus, is clear: while modern Africa suffers the consequences of white colonialism (the film condemns that in its way), it needs to be left alone.

This is the first time a mainstream blockbuster movie is including powerful black heroes; this is very rare, especially in this movie genre. White directors, writers and actors have been dominating the entire genre (and the entire movie industry) for decades, excluding their black colleagues. This is changing. The importance of the film’s representation might not be so obvious to white audiences, since we haven’t experienced the marginalization in the arts as black people have. But consider what it means for any black kid to watch black people be represented in this way; they won’t feel marginalized, they won’t feel excluded. They will feel they belong. That is why this movie is so important.

What is also amazing in this movie is the unapologetic representation of the female. All female characters are presented equal to the male ones; they are strong, independent, powerful, and above all their opinion matters. They are owing their own identity. The film doesn’t have to explain its choices on the matter – as Wonder Woman did – it is just how it should be. The character of Okoye, the loyal warrior of the king, is so empowering that I got the chills while watching her on screen (actress Danai Gurira is equally inspiring in real life).

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

The aesthetic of Afrofuturism, pervades the film and elevates it to modernity. For those who don’t know (I didn’t either before writing this) Afrofuturism refers to the point where African or African-American culture meets technology. Specifically, it combines science and historical fiction, fantasy and an ideology that focuses on African history (Afrocentrism). The Black Panther has Afrofuturism as its base, showing the importance of a powerful and influential culture that has always been marginalized throughout its history.

The deep political messages of the film overshadow its typical Hollywood narration, structure and humor. When you ignore the shiny super-hero packaging of a Marvel movie, those messages stand proud in front of the world. In this world where solidarity has lost its meaning, the film stands strong with its humanitarian sensitivity, powerful black and female representations, African history and identity; it is a beautiful, bold and honest film.