What Black Panther Does and Doesn’t Do for Black Culture

Long before it was released on February 16, 2018, Black Panther was hyped to be not only the next great movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also, a defining moment for black culture. After its release, the movie was praised for all aspects ranging from direction to costume design. Its popularity has led it to become the third highest grossing US film ever, trailing only Start Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar. Much of this success owes its thanks to the movie’s undeniable political tone. Black Panther is not just another classic Marvel, superhero movie, but rather “a movie about what it means to be black” (Times Magazine). Its release during a time of a regressive political culture makes just the existence of Blank Panther feel like resistance (Time Magazine). Its representation of black people and their culture is revolutionary within the film industry, especially in a blockbuster movie. For one of the first times, it gives a voice for black culture in Hollywood and offers model for black success in the 21st century. However, the movie is just the start. Despite its groundbreaking contribution to black culture, Black Panther falls short of its supposed political goals of black liberation instead settling to appease its white oppressors. The film is a success for its representation of black culture in the mainstream offering a perfect building block for the future, but it leaves the door open, in many regards, to fully breaking free from the oppressive stereotypes of blackness.

Black Panther is by no means the first black superhero movie. Both Blankman and The Meteor Man in the mid-1990s had black superhero figures along with Blade in 1998 and Hancock in 2008 (NY Times).  However, these movies were seen as partly comical or ignored the issues of blackness (NY Times). Superheroes are so beloved and powerful that the idea a regular black person could experience those traits was so far-fetched that the movies warranted humor (NY Times). The reason why Black Panther is so revolutionary is the fact it embraces its blackness and attacks the issues of black life head on.

This celebration of black culture within the movie provides incredible benefits for those who watch it, especially young black children. For many years, black people have abandoned cultural traditions, such as eating watermelon or traditional hair styles, that were once sacred to them for fear of being demonized or ridiculed (NY Times). In many cases, they have lost their identity, and Black Panther offers the opportunity for them to find it again. The movie is centered in the idea of exploring one’s reality and the personal struggle of accepting who you are (Time Magazine). Especially for black culture, it is similar to the “first time I knew I was black” movement. The struggles with identity are seen most directly in two of the main characters, T’Challa and Killmonger. These characters are mirror images of each other with drastic differences in their understanding of their own identities, despite their shared bloodline. This difference is due to their different upbringings, with T’Challa being raised as royalty in a rich African country and Killmonger being raised an orphan in poor Oakland, California. T’Challa is very comfortable with who he is while Killmonger struggles to find his true identity throughout the film (Time Magazine).

More than just the characters themselves, the film offers the chance for the audience, particularly black people, to explore their own identity. The portrayal of black culture in this populist and open setting is important, as it gives confidence to those who watch it. As Chadwick Boseman, actor who plays T’Challa, said, the movie provides “a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you’re disconnected from it” (Time Magazine). Not only does the film give black people a chance to see and understand black culture and tradition by relating to the characters on screen, but it also provides a great opportunity for others, especially white people, to see and understand black culture (Time Magazine). Alongside discovering one’s identity, the movie also gives people the chance to see a black superhero with its own kind of power rooted in strength, agility, and intelligence (Times Magazine). Instead of focusing on black pain, suffering, and poverty, the characters are portrayed as powerful and intelligent while still embracing their blackness (NY Times). This creates a perfect model for young black children to look up to providing them a path for future success. The fact that Black Panther is able to embrace black culture and provide strong, black characters in an extremely successful and widely popular film is perhaps the movie’s greatest accomplishment. Forget the fact that the movie itself is good by any normal standard, it moves beyond the traditional mold and contributes greatly to black culture.

Alongside providing an identity for black people in popular culture, Black Panther also is an expression of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is an idea that combines African mythology with technology and science fiction to rebuke conventional depictions of black oppression and create a future in which blacks are in power (Time Magazine). For much of their history, black culture has longed for a homeland in which they can truly call their own (NY Times). Whether real or mythical, black culture has imagined a place and a future in which they had complete freedom and were absent of all fear from any type of oppression (NY Times). Somewhere where blackness is a thing with meaning, lineage, value, and power (NY Times). This is especially true for African Americans who have fought through slavery and segregation, and live in a place that is home but at the same time isn’t (NY Times). Black Panther and Wakanda provide just this home for African Americans and black culture. While it is not real, it still offers a place that is safe and untouched by colonialism. Wakanda represents what could have been for the history of black culture. It is also acts as a model for the future with Afrofuturism, as a place not devoid of racism, but rather one where black people have an even playing field in terms of wealth, technology, and military might (Time Magazine).

While Black Panther provides incredible benefits to black culture in terms of identity and Afrofuturism, it fails to go far enough in terms of truly creating a black culture free of outside influence. The movie undoubtedly does a great job at creating a unique black identity. However, it stills displays many of the destructive myths about Africans that have been around for hundreds of years. It displays a divided, tribalized continent that is run by wealthy, power hungry, and feuding elites whose nation, with the most advanced technology in the world, still relies on lethal combat or coup d’état for power (Washington Post). While these ideas could be defended by claiming the movie is displaying true African heritage, they are still at their core stereotypes that have been used to generalize and describe Africa as a whole.

Furthermore, other Marvel movies focus on somewhat ordinary people who, to the viewer, seem totally likely to be superheroes (Washington Post). Black Panther, on the other hand, must focus on African royalty and warriors to seem in the least bit believable (Washington Post). Alongside this, Wakanda’s wealth stems from a “lucky meteor strike and the benevolence of its all-wise rulers” and not from “the ingenuity of its people. (Washington Post). Despite the movie’s best efforts to provide a fresh identity to black culture, it still portrays Africa not as a physical place but rather, as a representation of blackness with people of one race sharing cultural unity and historical fate (Washington Post). To top it all off, despite Wakanda’s incredible technological advancements, a “returning” American is still able to stroll in and briefly come to power (Washington Post). This behavior follows extremely close to colonialism in the 19th century which is something Wakanda was supposed to be free from (Washington Post). The movie is still an incredibly important cultural event and is revolutionary in its representation of black people and their culture. However, it missed many chances to separate itself from many destructive stereotypes. While many of the issues above are simply “a part of the story,” their inclusion in the film feels almost like a cop-out. Instead of fully breaking the stereotypical mold of black culture, the director and producers played to the stereotype in some aspects so that the movie still be accessible to a non-black audience.

The danger of Black Panther not going far enough, in terms of breaking the stereotypes of blackness, is that it marginalized many within the African community who have little to gain from Afrofuturism. As mentioned before, the ideas of Afrofuturism within the film offer safety and peace to many within the black community. However, Afrofuturism offers little to non-African-Americans (Washington Post). Many of the ideas that come with Afrofuturism align freedom with the continent of Africa for the good of those African-Americans subjugated by slavery and segregation and not the people of Africa. They, being African-Americans, use the people of Africa and their land as props for their own struggles (Washington Post). Therefore, by failing to expel many of the African stereotypes and promoting Afrofuturism, Black Panther offers very little to the people of Africa.

The film at its core is also extremely political. It doesn’t shy away from any of the major issues that black people face around the world today. For the first time, it offers a great voice to many of these issues in a mainstream, blockbuster film. However, it fails to go far enough in promoting black liberation from oppression as it settles for uncontroversial politics. The movie follows an understanding of black liberation that advocates for bourgeois respectability over armed revolution (Canadian Dimension). It somewhat ignores the history of real-life anti-colonial struggles in Africa through its message that armed revolution is bad (Canadian Dimension). Overwhelmingly, the movie makes out T’Challa and his liberalistic approach to be good and Killmonger and his armed revolution to be bad. Yet, violence is ok for the white CIA agent when he saves the day from a black revolution by shooting down the ships carrying weapons (Canadian Dimension). This promotion of peaceful politics allows the white audience of Black Panther to feel comfortable with the movie without feeling threatened (Canadian Dimension). While a stance against full, armed revolution is not inherently bad, the movie seems to totally negate any chance of black liberation without the appeasement of whites. This message, of course, plays into Marvel’s bottom line of pleasing all moviegoers so they can fulfill their bottom line of selling tickets.

The movie also frames any person in favor of revolution in a negative light. Killmonger, the leading advocate for revolution, holds all the most hideous traits and is framed as a manic consumed by rage and violence (Canadian Dimension). This behavior follows the common troupe that “any black revolutionary who seeks to use violence to meet their aims becomes even worse than the system they’re trying to take down” (Canadian Dimension). Yet, this is not the case for all white revolutionaries. As seen in the recent movies The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner, white activist who use violence to fight an unjust system are seen as heroes while Killmonger is framed as a villain (Canadian Dimension).

Black Panther is truly something to celebrate when it comes to promotion of black culture. Its representation of black people and culture on screen in a major film is import for the identity and understanding of black life, especially for black children. However, the movie fails to go far enough in many aspects that could have shed more positive light on the fight for black liberation from oppressive white, neocolonial systems. Wakanda leaves white people free of guilt because they do not have to face the harsh realities of their history and are unthreatened by their passive politics which fall into white, colonial institutions (Canadian Dimension).  Black Panther leaves a lot on the table for being a truly revolutionary film, but it offers the perfect building block for black culture to continue to make headways into the mainstream.


Works Cited

Time Magazine

NY Times

Washington Post

Canadian Dimension