Black Panther has only been in theaters for a few days, but it feels like the film has been hovering over the culture for much, much longer.
Ever since Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa made his movie debut in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, there has been intense anticipation for Ryan Coogler’s solo film about the prince/protector of fictional Wakanda. As details emerged about the project—from the intense research undertaken to authentically incorporate African culture into the narrative, to a cast of stellar black actors and actresses assembled to bring this ambitious story to the screen—fans and critics have been waiting to see if this movie could live up to the heightened cultural importance it had been assigned.
Of course, unless you’ve been in a coma for the past week, you know that Black Panther has been a critical and commercial homerun. The box office returns are massive: as of this writing, Black Panther has earned a whopping $192 million and is expected to top $218 million over its opening President’s Day weekend—the biggest February opening ever. And despite some expected sabotage from racist trolls dragging down the Audience Score, the movie has a 97% critic’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the best-reviewed MCU movies thus far. Beyond box office and critics, the people have responded with enthusiasm and raves, attending showings of the movie decked in African garb or Black Panther cosplay. On social media, the unfettered enthusiasm has been met with constant dissection of what the film means and what it gets right or wrong.
There’s a lot of talk about representation—what it means for young black kids to see black faces that are heroic and beautiful, strong and independent, not defined by their proximity to whiteness. When I was a kid, I was dismissive of so many black heroes because they seemed like sidekicks or less dazzling compared to their more popular white counterparts. I remember seeing Black Vulcan on the long-running Superfriends cartoon and not connecting with the character at all—a token African-American character stuffed onto the Superfriends roster next to iconic white characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. I wasn’t a big fan of Luke Cage comic books as a kid, either. Superficial as I was, I thought his character was unimaginative, down to his “uniform” of yellow shirt and blue jeans and his “regular guy” name. I vividly remember drawing my own superhero teams in my notebooks as a kid. And even as a black kid, the heroes I’d draw were mostly white. When I got older and thought back to that, I had to ask myself: “What had I internalized about blackness at such a young age?”
Growing up, I was bombarded with cartoon shows like G.I. Joe, He-Man and popular live-action TV hits like The A-Team and Knight Rider. Watching those shows, where white men were almost always the noble leader, my imagination had been sparked by images that were created with no regard for the fact that I existed. My childhood was peppered with so much content that deliberately ignored black people or served to further stereotype black people—from the blackface gags in old Looney Tunes cartoons to black G.I. Joe characters who spoke in rhyme or carried a basketball.
In Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, I saw something that seemed to challenge that standard. Here was a team of superheroes that didn’t all look like the typical white ideal—and the leader was a black woman with a leather vest and mohawk. Storm was the first time I remember being exposed to a superhero that was centered as a leader who wasn’t a white male. It’s easy to overstate the impact popular entertainment has on shaping our collective worldview; but I spent most of my adolescence (and post-adolescence) unlearning what I’d been subliminally conditioned to embrace. My father’s generation grew up with these classic superheroes and big-screen cowboys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and as adults, their generation’s reaction to that whitewashed upbringing was to embrace urban black heroes like Shaft and Super Fly. My teenage cultural awakening came via Spike Lee movies and the music of Public Enemy, 2Pac and Ice Cube. I look at what’s happening with black pop culture and I’m hopeful for what these kids won’t have to unlearn going forward.
Black Panther isn’t a singular moment; it seems like a flashpoint, but it’s really one of several cultural benchmarks we’ve witnessed in recent years that have been purposeful assertions of blackness in the most visible mainstream platforms. Beyoncé’s “Formation” performance at Super Bowl 50; the success of black-ish, Insecure and Atlanta on the small screen; Get Out and Girls Trip blowing up at the box office; Kendrick Lamar taking the 2016 Grammy stage in chains to perform “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright”; the anticipation for Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle In Time—it all feels like a cultural proclamation from black voices, in particular. That it’s so mainstream shouldn’t be celebrated as validation; it’s simply recognizing the impact of having these images on the biggest platforms. Black Panther is like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence: a summation of all this black entertainment excellence we’ve been witnessing for years that the world is finally getting hip to. It’s in plain sight.
I remember watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in a crowded Manhattan theater and feeling like I’d never endured a movie that felt as emotionally jarring. Sitting in the theater after the final credits and the lights went up, I was glued to my seat, emotionally battered by what I’d experienced for the previous two and a half hours. Black Panther was the polar opposite reaction: an exuberance that combined my childhood love of great popcorn movies with a cultural pride I didn’t think I’d ever get from watching one.
As exhausting and exhaustive as the hyper-analysis of this movie has been (and will continue to be), this is a movie that demands dissection; the details have been so painstakingly rendered, the subtext so masterfully navigated, it would be disingenuous to suggest that people “realize it’s just a movie.” Black Panther invites scholarly critique in almost every frame. The strained cultural relations between Africans and African-Americans; the lingering effects of American/European imperialism; uncomfortable realities about class, racism and war—this film attempts to tackle it all. It nails so much that it’s tempting to forgive some of the more questionable themes, such as the CIA as a “necessary evil” and the vilification of black radicalism. It’s an imperfect triumph, no doubt—but Black Panther is most definitely a triumph.
I hope kids look back at the enthusiasm surrounding Black Panther and wonder what the big deal was. I hope they think it’s quaint how people got dressed up to go to the theaters. If this movie’s success has the kind of impact the optimistic movie fan believes it will—that is, opening the floodgates for a wealth of black blockbusters—then Black Panther will only be the beginning. Growing up when high-profile mainstream black cinema is the norm would mean this imperfect triumph truly meant all that we thought it might. Yes, there will be endless examination of what this movie means. That’s what it warrants. But I’m so happy for that kid like me who wants to draw superheroes in his notebook. This week, I walked out of a movie theater geeked for a generation of black kids who hopefully won’t have to decolonize their imagination. They’ll be inspired by art that was inspired by them.