'Black Panther' Started The Most Vital (And Uncomfortable) Conversations Of 2018

To mark the end of 2018, we asked writers to revisit some of the year’s most noteworthy (for good or evil) events, people and ideas. See the other entries here between now and the new year.

2018 is coming to a close, but Hollywood’s awards season for the year’s best films is just beginning. It should come as no surprise to anyone that “Black Panther” has been nominated for multiple accolades, including a Golden Globe for Best Picture - Drama (the first superhero movie to do so), and more recognition for the Hollywood blockbuster is expected to come.

While the accolades, nominations, groundbreaking marketing and box-office rewards are certainly worthy of celebration, it’s the powerful conversations generated off-screen that made “Black Panther” one of the most pivotal cultural events of the year.

The brilliance and unparalleled magic that is “Black Panther” began even before the film was released. The build-up to the movie was preceded by a strategic marketing campaign which included a release date during Black History Month, grassroots organizing and GoFundMe campaigns that ensured both children and adults could experience the wonder of Wakanda.

With 'Black Panther,' Disney and Marvel delivered much more than just a movie — they gave birth to a movement that’s still ongoing.

The excitement around the release of “Black Panther” was all-encompassing. Comic book fans of various demographics were excited to see the “wealthiest fictional character in the Marvel Universe” adapted to film. And the announcement that Ryan Coogler would be at the helm of the film helped the buzz extend beyond the standard fans of Marvel. Coogler had established himself as a trusted voice in the Black community since his directorial debut of “Fruitvale Station.” His involvement only heightened audience expectations.

“Black Panther” more than lived up to the hype. It shattered box-office numbers both domestically and abroad. In doing so, it challenged long-held myths about the lucrativeness of casting Black leads all while countering stereotypes about African culture. Coogler brilliantly helped convey the powerful message that we didn’t need any more stories about  “white saviors.” Both native Africans and Black Americans are, in fact, our own saviors. We are our own superheroes.

“Wakanda forever” transcended from lines during pivotal scenes to symbolic greetings between Black people across the diaspora. It was almost impossible to leave the theater without feeling a sense of pride in the messaging, a connection to the characters — and, by extension, to Wakanda (or at least to the idea of Wakanda). “Black Panther” gave us a hope for an Afrofuture that could one day become our reality.

Above all, “Black Panther” was a conversation starter. Important discussions around colonialism, slavery, colorism, the disconnect and the pain experienced between African-Americans and Africans have been ongoing in black communities, but “Black Panther” created room for them to occur on a much larger, global scale.

The source of many of these conversations was Erik Killmonger, the slaughterous antagonist of the film, skillfully portrayed by the talented (and beautiful) Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger’s passionate closing line, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage,” became the subject of endless media conversations and spawned many think pieces about the culture of Black Americans and the ramifications of slavery.

Killmonger exuded the generational anger that festers within Black Americans while living in a country that grew rich and powerful from enslaving our ancestors while causing generational wounds. Wounds that only deepen when you are faced with laws and policies that dehumanize and implicitly target you and rejection from people who share your ancestry but refuse to accept you as one of their own.

'Black Panther' allowed us to get real and uncomfortable about our history of slavery and colonialism and stereotypes about Blackness.

Killmonger also flipped the villain trope on its head. Was he really the villain? In the film, he operated with the same strategies employed by colonizers. He killed innocent people in pursuit of his mission and caused wars where there was once peace. But for many Black Americans, the connection to Killmonger’s pain, anger and desire to want liberation for Black people across the globe made it hard to label him the villain. His pain mirrored our own as people whose ancestors’ bones made “human railroads at the bottom of the Atlantic.”

“Black Panther” allowed us to get real and uncomfortable about our history of slavery and colonialism and stereotypes about Blackness and Africanness in a way that had not been seen before in a large Hollywood production, let alone in a superhero movie. “Black Panther” portrayed the fantasy of a utopian Africa un-befouled by colonialism, juxtaposed by the brutal reality of those forced to endure it—while never shying away from the current byproduct of slavery. And this fictional experience/storyline felt all too real to Black and African people watching the film.

With “Black Panther,” Disney and Marvel delivered much more than just a movie— they gave birth to a movement that’s still ongoing. We’re still celebrating its success, we’re still applauding its cast and crew and we’re still fantasizing about residing in the fictional utopia.

Wakanda may not be real, but this year, it became a place to have some very real conversations about the wounds still felt by the impact of the slavery in our past and racism of our present day. 

Those wounds run deep and are too real to be instantly restored by a film, even a film as great as Coogler’s creation. But my hope is just as we all left the theaters shouting “Wakanda forever,” all Black people of the diaspora will leave this year committed to seeking the necessary healing and continuing the necessary conversations that “Black Panther” started.

Shanita Hubbard is an adjunct professor, writer and speaker who you can follow on Twitter for social commentary and occasional snide remarks.