A Blerd’s Take on Black Panther: Finally – The Black Superhero of My Dreams
This story first appeared on Deggans Stuff.
As a lifelong comics nerd who is also a black man in America – also known as a blerd – I’ve often faced the quandary of whether to root for the black superhero. I collected copies of Black Panther and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in the 70s, the first issues of Black Lightning in the 1980s and Milestone comics in the 1990s.
I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was always a little bummed out at how shabbily the big comics companies treated these characters – too often like they were afterthoughts. And it was irritating how often their powers and identities seemed rooted in superficial images connected to their race. Cage was a convict – of course! – subjected to experiments; Black Panther was an African king who somehow always seemed to be hanging out in New York City. Black Lightning was a guy who could shoot lightning out of his hands who was also, um, black.
There was even a villain/burglar from The Amazing Spider-Man book in 1969 called The Prowler who was – you guessed it – a black kid. (I used to joke ruefully that Marvel should call Thor, a Caucasian man whose power involved slinging bolts of electricity, White Lightning.)
All of this created a situation where it was tough to identify with black superheroes. I still remember a magazine advertisement for an insurance company from my youth showing a little black kid looking into a mirror with a towel pinned to his shoulders, imagining a white superhero’s reflection looking back. Too often, as a child, the little kid in that ad was me.
Which is why it was such a treat to see Black Panther the movie.
It is all the things critics and fans have hoped for: A visual feast packed with dazzling special effects, exciting action sequences, quality performances and compelling storylines. It’s an epic tale which also feels human and a story about family which also speaks to the world’s broad history of colonialism and the plight of people of color across the globe.
Still, I loved it for a simpler reason. It makes African culture and African people look cool.
This feat is traced to a tiny twist. The Black Panther’s homeland, Wakanda, is the most technologically advanced area in the world. But it has hidden its achievements by pretending to be a backward, Third World country, to avoid interference from the wider – meaning, white – world.
This allows our hero and king T’Challa – who protects Wakanda in a fancy suit of flexible armor as The Black Panther – to have all the advantages of a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark-like character, deploying tremendous wealth and wonderous technology to fight his battles.
Black Panther the movie also deliberately adapts other tropes typically reserved for white heroes. Wakanda maintains a network of spies to look out for its interests across the world, which makes espionage a constant theme. It leads to a wonderful sequence where T’Challa and two of his security people infiltrate a casino like James Bond striding up to a baccarat table. (T’Challa’s sister is his Q, designing all kinds of devices and technology to help in his missions.)
Instead of the fantasy of a billionaire like Bruce Wayne secretly building a skyscraper-sized plane for his work as Batman, Black Panther provides the fantasy of a powerful African country that has escaped colonization and exploitation by the wider – again, white – world.
Best of all, the film also addresses issues between Africans and African Americans. The movie’s villain, Killmonger, is a U.S.-raised interloper who resents the way Wakanda has isolated itself while black people across the world have suffered. As he fights T’Challa, we see the embodiment of classic frictions between Africans and black people from the U.S. – though I’ll admit it hurts a bit that the American is the bad guy.
I’ll admit to some misgivings. Code Switch host/blogger Gene Demby has made a good point on Twitter about how odd it feels to see Marvel use the hunger black folks have to see themselves inside the heart of mainstream film culture to sell a tentpole Disney movie. It’s dangerous to make a social justice cause out of supporting a movie owned by a multinational corporation, no matter how revolutionary it feels.
I also wonder if the movie isn’t perpetuating the same love of money and technology that European countries so often use to devalue African nations. If the main way Wakanda is elevated in Black Panther is by making the country a secretly wealthy, super tech-savvy nation, isn’t the film accepting the same bruising yardstick that has unfairly handicapped African countries for hundreds of years?
Still, despite those drawbacks, Black Panther feels like a further progression in ideas I’ve been writing about for years. It’s a fresh story borne from giving black creative talent some creative freedom, including writers, producers, director/writer Ryan Coogler and a laundry list of Hollywood’s most powerful black actors. It’s a story with a universal message borne from a specific story.
And it’s proof that diversifying comic book movie franchises won’t turn off white guy fanboys, engaging new audiences at a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to pivot from the characters which started everything – Iron Man, Thor and Captain America – who all happen to be aging white men.
At a time when real-life events have forced us to re-litigate many conversations about the value of diversity, it’s a pleasure to see, in Black Panther, a movie that makes all the right arguments in the most eloquent and entertaining ways.
This piece first appeared on Eric Deggan’s Tumblr, Deggans Stuff. Read more by journalist and author Eric Deggans at here at NPR, where he serves as NPR’s full time Television Critic. The award-winning writer is chair of the Media Monitoring Committee for the National Association of Black Journalists, a member of the national Television Critics Association, and a contributor to The New Ethics of Journalism (the first ethics book created in conjunction with the prestigious Poynter Institute for Media Studies). He has appeared on CNN and has lectured and served as an adjunct professor at prestigious universities across the United States. Rumor has it that Deggans can also hold a pretty vicious beat on drums. Purchase his book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, here on NPR.
Visit the Wakanda News Network at WakandaNews.com for more Black Panther coverage.