Warning: This piece contains spoilers.
We have never seen a black superhero movie quite like “Black Panther.”
While previous films like “Spawn,” the “Blade” series and “Hancock” have experienced box office success, the origins of the characters had a similar theme. In “Spawn,” the protagonist was dead before the devil transformed him into a superhero. His special powers thus came from hell. In the “Blade” movies, the main character was half-vampire, that is, half-undead. His unique gifts were attributed to him partially being a monster. In “Hancock,” the protagonist was an alien. His exceptional traits were thus based on him being from another planet.
In “Black Panther,” however, the central figure, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of the fictional, technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, is fully alive and fully human. This is admirable progress. After all, in the real world, the value of black lives in America, Haiti, African nations and elsewhere is still an unsettled matter. Furthermore, the Black Panther’s powers are not rooted in evil or race-neutral otherworldliness; his superhuman strength, speed and reflexes come from the Heart-Shaped Herb of his own African country. “Black Panther” highlights the possibilities of black power, something that still seems like a fantasy at times in the 21st century.
Unlike the Black Panther, the black superheroes in earlier popular films enabled many fans like me to subconsciously take in the blackness on our screens without constantly thinking about what blackness meant in those movies or in our own lives. They were a way to avoid thinking about the specific slights at school and work, or police stops and fatal shootings. Simply put, they were a form of escapism.
For some moviegoers, the previous black superhero movies were palatable because the protagonists were still safely the “other.” For example, Spawn and Blade seemed dangerous on the outside, but they still enabled viewers to stick to a tradition of associating blackness with darkness in the worst sense of the word. Hancock was powerful, but he was still a foreigner; he was a remarkable black person who did not truly belong in society. These superheroes entertained audiences, but they did not force moviegoers to expand their minds about black people.
“Black Panther’s powers are not rooted in evil or race-neutral otherworldliness; his superhuman strength, speed and reflexes come from his own African country.”
They were familiar. Viewers had been told before in one way or another that black people were straight out of hell, monsters and/or outsiders. Pieces of these characters had previously been in the public consciousness, whether they were the aggressive black person with a shady past or the one-of-a-kind black individual who seemed to be a credit to his race because he was not really of his race.
The African-based “Black Panther” movie is something entirely different. The continent is the birthplace of mankind, but people often view it as a place of physical and intellectual death. The film instead shows that Africa can be a source of transformative power, even for those who understandably identify much more deeply with the Wakandan-American Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) than T’Challa himself.
Throughout the film, viewers thus see the Black Panther literally rise above the laws of science while remaining anchored in his African identity. They watch him repel bullets and absorb energy while wearing a suit made out of Vibranium, the precious but severely underutilized metal that is plentiful in Wakanda.
Moreover, when both T’Challa and Killmonger use the Heart-Shaped Herb to gain superhuman powers, the audience itself is taken to uncharted waters. It witnesses two black men ― a superhero who defies our understanding of physics and an MIT-educated revolutionary from Oakland ― serve as vehicles for the idea that movements for African souls have always mattered, even if the leaders could not always agree on the best course of action.
On a much more basic level, even the simplest things such as the Black Panther’s speech and skin color also force the audience to grapple with his blackness. With respect to T’Challa’s accent, Boseman himself explained that he was very intentional with the character’s speech. The actor wanted to attack the notion that speaking as a leader and speaking with an African accent are mutually exclusive. T’Challa’s accent shows that not only did Western dominance outside of the uncolonized Wakanda fail to brainwash him; it also had no hope of ever wiping away the mark of Wakanda on his tongue.
When the Black Panther utters the words “Wakanda forever,” not just what he says but how he says it makes a statement about his African identity.
The Black Panther’s skin color also speaks volumes because it is at home in Wakanda. His dark skin is not used to further limit him as the other. In Wakanda, where there are many other courageous, brilliant, and ahead-of-their-time black individuals, especially black women, the Black Panther’s complexion is instead a symbol of belonging that extends past the screen. It lets the audience know that people with melanin are worthy of respect in the Marvel Universe, and therefore it should not be shocking that actual black people sitting in theater seats, cars or their own homes also have a right to be wherever they are and whoever they are.
Since the Black Panther’s powers and essence are rooted in his African background, the film emphasizes that it is a blessing to have an African nation in one’s origin story. The black power in Wakanda makes it clear that it is self-defeating to try to erase one’s blackness, whether that is by temporarily denying or laughing off one’s African heritage in conversation or religiously trying to bleach one’s skin in hopes of a permanent conversion into something else.
“Black Panther” challenges all viewers — whether they cannot even name one real African country or they already proudly call Africa their literal or ancestral home — to rethink any preconceived notions of what is possible on African land or with African blood.
Even though “Black Panther” is not real and is not tangible, it is something that people can cling to. And in times like these, when films featuring black characters are evolving but there is little change in the character of the U.S. government, we all need something that we can hold onto for dear life.
Victor A. Kwansa is an attorney, education advocate, poet and essayist from Prince George’s County, Maryland. He received a B.A. in political science from Yale University in 2008, and he graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011. His poems and essays can be found on his website.