Black Panther is a su­per­hero for our times

Film es­chews stereo­typ­i­cal por­tray­als of Africa, David Shep­herd writes

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - David Shep­herd is the MLA for Ed­mon­ton-Cen­tre. His fa­ther came to Canada from Trinidad in 1967 and his mother from the Nether­lands in 1948.

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.

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