Dr. Sarah Boyd
29 April 2018
The Significance of Black Panther to African American Society
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) is a superhero film that has unmatched social significance in comparison to other movies in this particular industry. In a film culture where there is little racial diversity between heroes, Black Panther is a movie that portrays a black protagonist with a great depth of character and personality that is refreshing in a largely monotonous genre. Set in present day, Black Panther describes a country with technology and wealth far beyond any other world power, and a leader with an undeniable strength of character and will. The value of this film lies in its profound ability to celebrate black culture and inspire black people through character development and setting.
Coogler’s first tool in paying homage to African culture is his portrayal of the fictional country of Wakanda to create a deep sense of pride in the hearts of black moviegoers. His style of Afrofuturism combines a visually sensational mixture of futuristic technology and African heritage to create beautiful cities and costumes. In popular American media, Africa is often displayed as a continent that is terrifically poor and in constant need of aid. The focus lies primarily on the needs of the continent, rather than the rich cultural histories that lie within it. Wakanda, on the other hand, is far and away the most developed nation in the world with wealth and technologies far greater than any other country. Through his use of Afrofuturism, Coogler presents Wakanda as a wonderful mix of different African cultures and advanced technology as a place to be praised rather than pitied. The architecture in the main city is beautifully developed and as production director, Hannah Bleacher, said, “That’s what Wakanda is…. It’s all the cultures that came together while they’re still individual. They have found a way to combine their aesthetic to create a Wakanda aesthetic” (Wilson, 2018). By having cultural diversity simply in the skyline, Coogler exalts the beauty of different African cultures in a way that almost no blockbuster, especially a superhero one, has done to date. Even though it is a fictional nation, Wakanda’s ability to blend different African art forms in a way that is so visually stunning makes the country a magnificent celebration of black history.
The portrayal of King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) in Black Panther is important to African American audiences in that they finally see a hero of their skin color in a universe where practically every other hero is white. While there have been other minor black heroes such as War Machine (played by Don Cheadle and introduced in Justin Favreau’s Iron Man 2 (2010)), or Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie and introduced in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)), they have very little significance in comparison to the primary plot of the white hero. At best they are sidekicks to white heroes Captain America and Iron Man, and at worst they are a miserable attempt to bring in racial diversity. The release of Black Panther, however, finally breaks this trend by introducing a lead black character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. T’Challa, as King of Wakanda and Black Panther, represents a beautiful image of physical, moral, and intellectual strength to black moviegoers. With the power of the “heart-shaped herb,” T’Challa is the first line of defense in protecting the safety and vitality of his country and its people. As a king who always leads with diplomacy, but isn’t afraid of precise and controlled violence in dire circumstances, T’Challa represents the perfect balance of restraint and action when it comes to matters of injustice. These are some of the character qualities that make him so valuable to black audiences. Because of his own resilience in the face of adversity, T’Challa has become an inspiration for African American audiences to “soar and tack action” as “strong black bodies of justice” (Johnson, 2018).
T’Challa’s significance not only lies in his strength but in the recognition of his weaknesses. One article by writer Meg Downey noted, “From the first story beat, T’Challa’s vulnerability and emotional availability drive the story forward in unflinching fashion.” (2018). When T’Challa is first crowned king, he is ceremoniously buried in order to visit the ancestral plain. Upon arriving, he is greeted by his father who died in Anthony and Joe Russo’s previous film Captain America: Civil War (2016). Two things, in particular, stand out in this interaction. For one, T’Challa is immediately moved to tears of grief as he expresses his sense of guilt over his father’s death. He was there when the bomb that killed his father went off and he blames himself for not being quick enough to stop it. He then follows this by saying that he is not ready. To the audience and to his father, it seems as though he is insecure about having to be king. However, T’Challa clarifies by saying, “I am not ready to live without you.” Unlike most superheroes, T’Challa isn’t attempting to feign emotional fortitude or use humor to mask his pain. Instead, he shows a unique moment of extreme heartache through verbal communication in a way that feels palpable to the audience. The anguish that he expresses isn’t portrayed as a sign of weakness, rather it is his because of his grief that he can be the humble and strong ruler we see in T’Challa. Living in a society where masculinity is exhibited by a lack of emotion, seeing a brave and powerful man show such lament demonstrates the validity of mourning a loss. Coogler redefines masculinity in this scene through showing that even someone as strong and tough as the Black Panther is aware and accepting of his own pain.
The typical American social order is further altered through the significant roles women play in the country of Wakanda. Beginning with General Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) and her militia of spear bearing women, the role of females in Wakanda is quickly established as one of strength, honor, and independence. She is frequently seen fighting alongside T’Challa against his enemies, as well as boldly engaging them on her own without a second thought. Nakia (played by Lupita Nyong’o) possesses a similar skill and fearlessness as an undercover spy and humanitarian. She lives with a heart of generosity through her empowerment of impoverished peoples across Africa by defending those who can’t defend themselves. Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), is both T’Challa’s little sister and top scientist in Wakanda. It is Shuri who creates the advanced technology of the Black Panther suit and because of her intelligence, she even heals bullet wounds to the spine with ease. Finally, T’Challa’s mother shows immense leadership in supporting her son throughout his reign, especially in the times when he cannot support himself. As writer Monica Jones put it, “As a rare leading man who isn’t defined by toxic masculinity, T’Challa is surrounded by strong women whose feminine power fortifies, rather than antagonizes, his own masculinity” (2018). The women in Black Panther display an individuality and fortitude that goes unmatched by almost any other female character in the genre, and it is only by relying on them that T’Challa is able to lead with such confidence. Each has her own personality and each plays a vital leadership role in the film. Much like T’Challa’s strength empowers many African Americans to fight for justice with the same ferocity, the women of Wakanda are specifically inspirational to African American women and girls that they may walk with same bravado and independence.
Black Panther’s depth of influence is also found in its poignant antagonist. Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan), born and raised in Oakland, CA, was just a kid when his father N’Jobu was killed by the previous Black Panther and T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. Heartbroken by the egregious treatment of his black brothers and sisters in America, N’Jobu made it his objective to distribute advanced Wakandan technology that the oppressed may free themselves by force. However, he is ultimately killed by T’Chaka for failing to come back to Wakanda peacefully, thus leaving a young Killmonger alone and fatherless. Little did T’Chaka know, Killmonger would grow up to take his father’s mission and fight relentlessly to make it a reality. He wanted to liberate not only the black’s in America but blacks all over the world by taking Wakanda off the sidelines and putting them in the fight against the powers of persecution. The gravity of his mission lies in the truth that he is right on both parts of his argument. For centuries, abuse of people of color has been rampant across the world, while Wakanda has sat in comfortable bliss. His pursuit of the throne is not in an effort gain power, but to distribute it into the hands of the powerless. His goal is not to destroy Wakanda, but to make it an enforcer of equality rather than an observer of oppression. There is nothing more relatable to audiences than an attempt to bring about justice to an issue that they personally wrestle with. Many black moviegoers can likely identify with his rage and thirst for justice. Rather continue on this slow, almost insufferable, path towards justice, why not follow Killmonger’s plan and make swift work in restructuring the social order? It is a quick fix to a systemic and chronic disease that has plagued the U.S. for centuries, and to minorities who identify with his level of pain, it seems like a viable option. Coogler does an incredible job of developing an antagonist whose story and whose hunger for equality resonates on the same level as the protagonist’s ability to inspire greatness.
The final touch to Black Panther that allows it to be impactful to African American society is the fact that most of the cast and much of the crew are black. As writer Taryn Finley said, “It matters that many of the people behind the scenes who are helping tell this story are black. They bring a cultural understanding to the set that can’t be learned, and they help elevate the film with a specific kind of nuance and sophistication” (2018). Everyone one from the director and writer Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, to costume designer Ruth Carter and production director Hannah Bleacher, allowed for Wakanda to be created in a fashion that was as equally beautiful as it was potent. The shared experience and cultural awareness of each participant elevated “the film with a specific kind of nuance and sophistication” (Finley, 2018). It is because of this attention to detail that the film became as popular as it has been and has made it a fantastic source of pride and inspiration for black audiences across the world.
Ryan Coogler uses spectacular character development as well as breathtaking visuals to move audiences on many different emotional levels. Through its use of a vulnerable hero, formidable women, and a resonating villain, Black Panther draws out emotions of both courage and empathy in every viewer. It celebrates black culture and paints a picture of a world in which equality is a deep foundation rather than something that must be fought for. It is because of these things that Black Panther has become one of the most significant films in black culture.
(This is a clip of a group of children after being told they are going to see Black Panther that I found hilariously exciting as well as an excellent demonstration of how much this movie means to many African Americans.)
Coogler, Ryan, director. Black Panther. Marvel Studios, 2018.
Downey, Meg. “Black Panther’s Vulnerability Is Something Marvel Desperately Needs.”Polygon, Polygon, 22 Feb. 2018, www.polygon.com/2018/2/22/17039964/black-panther-superheroes-masculinity-t-challa-marvel-mcu.
Favreau, Justin, director. Iron Man 2. Marvel Studios, 2010.
Finley, Taryn. “Here Are The Black People Behind The Scenes Who Made ‘Black Panther’ A Reality.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 Feb. 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/here-are-the-black-people-behind-the-scenes-who-made-black-panther-a-reality_us_5a80de55e4b08dfc9305611c.
Johnson, Tre. “Black Panther Is a Gorgeous, Groundbreaking Celebration of Black Culture.”Vox, Vox, 23 Feb. 2018, www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/23/17028826/black-panther-wakanda-culture-marvel.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel Studios, 2014.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors. Captain America: Civil War. Marvel Studios, 2016.
Sud, Kishordi. “A Powerful Woman Does Not Threaten a Man’s Position: Lupita Nyong’o.”DailyHunt, DailyHunt, 6 Feb. 2018, m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/live+uttarpradesh+english-epaper-liveupen/a+powerful+woman+does+not+threaten+a+man+s+position+lupita+nyong+o-newsid-81301107.
Wilson, Mark. “Meet The Designer Who Created Black Panther’s Wakanda.” Co.Design, Co.Design, 23 Feb. 2018, www.fastcodesign.com/90161418/meet-the-designer-who-created-black-panthers-wakanda.