‘Black Panther’: sparking a revolution in black culture
Latest chapter in Marvel cinematic universe more than another superhero film
The press junkets for Marvel pictures are always spectacular events. Drawing on the talents of enough busy professionals to dredge a second Suez Canal, the current jamboree has occupied a whole floor of a hotel in London’s West End.
This happens all the time. But there is a different feel to this gathering. Black Panther is more than another superhero film. The 18th chapter in the current Marvel cinematic universe is the first to feature a black character as its core protagonist.
The revolution goes further. The picture does not feel any need to surround its hero with white players. (An amusing online gag describes supporting players Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, both late of The Hobbit, as the “Tolkien whites”.)
Largely set in the imagined African kingdom of Wakanda, Black Panther is proudly African in its busy iconography. Chadwick Boseman, so good as James Brown in Get On Up, plays the title character.
Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett are among the black actors swelling an impeccable cast.
Not so long ago, the stubbornly vanilla Hollywood establishment would have seen this as a ludicrous gamble. The US is still the largest market. African-Americans remain a minority in that market. People will pay to see only people who look like themselves. Right?
Before it had even opened, Black Panther shattered those tired assumptions. Ryan Coogler’s picture has already broken the record at Fandango, the online ticket service, for advanced sales of a superhero film.
Surveys found that, of 2018 releases, only Marvel’s own Avengers: Infinity War was more eagerly anticipated. The reviews have been strong. “The buzz on Black Panther is electric,” Erik Davis, Fandango’s managing director, said. “The positive word-of-mouth is helping drive the movie’s spectacular ticket sales.” Failure is not an option.
Despite what you might have read, Black Panther is not the first film with a black superhero as its title character. It’s not even the first Marvel adaptation to qualify. A full 20 years ago. Wesley Snipes strode out against unfriendly vampires in the first Blade movie.
Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II is as good as any film in the current Marvel cycle. Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp have taken major supporting roles as Storm in the X-Men cycles.
But something feels decidedly different here. A black film-maker is telling a story about an imagined African culture that has evolved without the malign influence of European colonialism.
First appearing in Fantastic Four in 1966, Black Panther was the creation of Stan Lee, the still upright founder of Marvel, and the legendary writer and artist Jack Kirby.
Emerging during the period when Black Power was edging into the mainstream – sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Mexico Olympics two years later – the character allowed Marvel to assume a degree of radical chic.
The Black Panther Party would not take its name until a few months after the character appeared in print, but the accidental connection added greatly to the comic’s credibility.
Let nobody pretend that such shifts in representation don’t spring from commercial imperative. The rise of Blaxpoitation in the early 1970s inspired Marvel to create the “hero for hire” known as Luke Cage Power Man. (The James Bond people caught up with craze in 1973 with the dubious Live and Let Die.)
Before entertainment giants tear down social barriers they need to be sure there’s a market on the other side.
Boseman, a charismatic, cautious man, who could be a decade younger than his 40 years, recognises that a moment has come.
“I think it’s important because we haven’t seen anything like it,” he says. “People are thirsty for it. It’s one thing to tell a story about historical figures. It’s another for that story to be aspirational – to not be defined by slavery, to not be defined by colonialism. It’s important to get away from those boundaries. People are excited about the promise of what it could be and what it should be.”
Did he grow up with Black Panther?
“I didn’t know the character as a child. It’s not something that was widely popular until a few years ago,” he says bravely.
There is a kind of truth in that. In 2005, African-American writer Reginald Hudlin took over Black Panther – alter-ego of King T’Challa of Wakanda – and sought to imbue him with a touch of street cred.
A few years later the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off and fans begin to wonder when the Panther would get his turn. A highbrow imprimatur was granted in 2016 when Ta-Nehisi Coates, the distinguished author and journalist, began writing the comic.
The influence of Hudlin and Coates spreads across the movie. Political subtexts swell throughout. The key conflict is between T’Challa and his arch-rival Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan. Is there something of Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X here? T’Challa favours a less hurried approach to social change. Killmonger is the impatient Public Enemy fan.
“I don’t see it that way,” Boseman says. “If it were, you would be defining Killmonger as Malcolm X. I don’t think [Malcolm X] was ever taking a fight to his oppressor. He was saying: we should be able to defend ourselves if we need to.”
Boseman addresses a slightly different dispute in black politics. Killmonger has failed to make the connection with his African roots.
“T’Challa can name his ancestors back to ancient times,” he says. “There is an ocean between these things. That conversation has never happened on this stage. It has happened in history during the Black Power movement and it happened in ways that are very profound. But it hasn’t happened on a world stage where everyone could see it in a movie.”
It’s hard to overestimate the cultural impact of Black Panther. In the weeks before the film’s release, the hashtag #blackpantherchallenge was established to help children from inner-city neighbourhoods attend screenings.
Actor Octavia Spencer offered to buy out an entire Mississippi cinema so kids could see it for free. You expect this sort of thing with a historical drama such as Selma or Schindler’s List. It’s unheard of for a comic-book flick to become a cause and a duty. All this is happening during the annual Black History Month.
Daniel Kaluuya, the charming English actor, currently Oscar-nominated for Get Out, plays W’Kabi in the film. He understands and supports the gesture.
“It’s really important to see yourself when you’re growing up,” he tells me. “It’s important to have a narrative before society imposes a narrative on your body. The gesture of buying out cinemas is important. They can see themselves as kings and queens before society tells them they are x, y or z.”
We probably shouldn’t get too complacent, but the industry does seem to be opening itself up. Black Panther is not the only black superhero on screen. Netflix recently collaborated with Marvel on a well-received Luke Cage series and Black Lightning, concerning a retired African-American crime fighter, debuted on the streaming service earlier this month.Get Out was a smash at the US box office. Moonlight won best picture last year.
Kaluuya exhales noisily and ambiguously. “Ehhhhhh! It’s almost as if it shouldn’t be possible to go back. This is how it is supposed to be,” he says.
“If somebody has something – black, white, Indian – then everybody has a responsibility to help with that. If I am in a youth theatre and I see a white kid with talent then I am going to say: ‘You have to do that.’ I feel: let’s keep going. Let’s keep working hard. Keep dreaming. Keep having ideas. Have integrity. This is how it is supposed to be.”
Say it one more time.
Five great black Marvel characters
Black Panther (1966): The urbane king of Wakanda – T’Challa by day – ventures out in the coolest suit worn by any Avenger (even Iron Man): Jet black and sleek as ebony.
Luke Cage (1972): Anything Shaft could do, Marvel could do funkier. Beneficiary of one of those happy accidents that occur so often in comics, Power Man has the strength of dozens. Played by Mike Colter in the decent Netflix series.
Blade (1973): Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan created the vampire hunter as a supporting player in the beautifully drawn Tomb of Dracula. Became more famous in the movies than he had ever been on the page.
Storm (1975): One of the key members of the X-Men, the mighty Storm is descended from a line of with princesses. Eventually married Black Panther in Marvel’s version of the Princess Diana and Prince Big Ears’ wedding. They too divorced.