Black Panther is a superhero for our times
Film eschews stereotypical portrayals of Africa, David Shepherd writes
Other than the Star Wars sequels, few movies have galvanized the pre-release electricity being generated by Marvel’s Black Panther. But a better buzz-comparison might be the 1977 blockbuster miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots, which fundamentally changed how North Americans viewed one of the greatest crimes ever committed on this continent.
As local science fiction novelist and Black Panther fan Minister Faust notes, “Roots fictionalized the intergenerational suffering of a Gambian family forced into the United States’ continentwide system of slavery and rape, and their triumphs over its evil.” But for all Roots’ excellence, it “still falsely depicted an Africa devoid of architecture, literature, science, and civilization. It was still an imperial vision of a ‘dark continent.’”
That’s why even in prerelease, Black Panther is so groundbreaking; it offers a re-envisioning of Africa via the fictional high-tech kingdom of Wakanda, whose clothing, architecture, and language (the real-world language of Xhosa) all celebrate African beauty. This is a marked departure, notes Faust, from common “poor-nography” that “offers African misery and degradation so non-African ‘saviours’ can prove their ‘heroism’ at our expense.”
Oddly, one of the least-appreciated triumphs of the hero is his non-African origin. Faust praises JewishAmerican creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who introduced Black Panther in Fantastic Four No. 52 as the hero-king of his proud, unconquered, technologically advanced country, months before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale launched the Black Panther Party.
Faust doesn’t know if Lee and Kirby were inspired by developing anti-imperialist victories across Africa, or simply thought the U.S. civil rights struggle offered a great sales opportunity. Regardless, they created a dignified, brilliant character who, while never a sales juggernaut, remained loved by African readers across North America.
Some, including actor Wesley Snipes (Blade) and director Reginald Hudlin (House Party), dreamed of bringing Panther to the big screen. Marvel even hired celebrated commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose name means “Land of the Nubians”) to script the character following his re-invention by maverick African-American writer Christopher Priest.
In Edmonton, AfricanCanadian youth organization The Come-Up will host a Monday-night screening with a panel discussion and art show because “schools generally don’t offer kids many realistic examples of successful black people leading rich, complex lives,” says Belen Samuels, a key organizer.
Black Panther, she says, depicts “an African culture before colonialism and how its science and knowledge could have developed if it hadn’t been violently interrupted. It gives youth a new example of who they could be.”
Bashir Mohamed of Black Lives Matter YEG, who fundraised enough to send 100 youth to the film, says that unlike media’s stereotypical depictions of African-Canadian youth as uneducated hoodlums, “Black Panther allows youth to recognize themselves as the superheroes and creators they are.”
Idriss Bundu, whose ancestry includes Mandinka, is taking 13 family members to the film, saying he’s “ecstatic” for his “children to see the positive depictions of their origins and get back to their roots.” His wife Esther agrees, “We’re now properly included, not just extras, token characters or backbenchers.”
Representation matters. I learned that immediately after my election in 2015 when various African and Caribbean community groups invited me to meet with them and showed me how much they appreciated having a public representative who actually looked like them.
As only the third person of African descent ever elected to Alberta’s legislature, I’ve made it a priority to work alongside our communities to help inspire and empower new leaders. Part of that is looking for opportunities to rally them together around common stories or symbols, and Black Panther is an ideal chance to do just that.
We need symbols to rally us, to inspire new heroes, to help us build a society and planet united not by fear, but by respect, love, and justice.