Marvel’s Black Panther

When I was in college my feature and review studies lecturer made us watch Sun Ra: A joyful noise. The rare short film directed by Robert Mugge, is part historical documentary and part explorative fiction. I opens with Sun ra on a non-descript rooftop wearing purple headgear, antennas sticking out. He is flanked by devotees as he begins a chant. I have many names he says. This was my first meaningful encounter with the notion of afro-futurism. The idea that black people not only existed in the future but were thriving both disturbed and provoked me. It was a new history. In the years to come I would devour Sun ra’s works ranging from music and art to philosophy and writing.

His manifestos would later guide me to lighthouses closer to home. Specifically, the work of Credo Mutwa. As I continued to read more about various ideas of what black futures were supposedly like I became increasingly aware of two things there were at play in the notion of afrofuturism. The first was that many worlds crafted in this place were seen as separate worlds from our own. Worlds in which black people were at the center. The second, and this is the most alarming, is that they always seemed to react to the ways in which black people had been written out of the future. I become increasingly tight about the sheer joylessness that had been written into ideas of what our future incarnations might look like.

Where had the homour gone? I am not at ease with stories that based only around what had happened to render us so tight-lipped and defensive. We are more than the things that defeat us. The notion that in order for us as black people to survive into the future we’d have to give up the most central of ingredient that makes us who we are, our humanity, freighted me.

Last week the trailer for Marvel’s next big tent pole Black panther debuted. For those who are comic book fans this would not have been the first time they saw the character who was introduced into the Marvel universe last year in Captain America: civil war. The teaser which is just less than two minutes long wets our apatite about Black Panther’s origin story, it gives us a glimpse into what looks like some amazing fight scenes and lays the groundwork for the franchise.

The Black Panther story is a familiar one in the African context. It is about a nation, previously closed off to the outside world that is forced to open up and the restlessness that engulfs the community as it does this. Autonomy is the recurring theme foreshadowed in the trailer. Both T’challa and his nation are forced to come to terms with life in a new world. There is a particularly thrilling moment, which looks like his coronation. As T’challa emerges from the water, surrounded by the various tribes of Wakanda. In the euphoria of post-baptism he takes it all in, coming to terms with the brave new world of which he is now leader.

For those who know me, over the last year I have said that I felt Chadwick Boseman was not the right person for Black Panther. In Civil war although he was a pivotal character, he lacked the charisma to make an impression. In the years that I have been reading Black panther comics I have always seen Panther as character that is ironic and funny and not the earnestness Boseman displayed in Captain America.

In the trailer however there is a kind of blackness here that permeates and makes any notion of hand-wringing invalid. Judging from the elaborate character seeding that takes place in this teaser, it’s clear that this will be the most extensive myth-building undertaking in the entire Marvel universe.

But What makes Wakanda different is that is not so much an alternative world as it is a parallel one. It shows us what would be possible if black people were left alone. Unharmed by whiteness and it’s afflictions. Wakanda is an imaginary homeland. It is a meditation on both what we believe is possible but also a new incarnation of what we have lost. It is a statement of intent.

The poster for the film has also drawn attention. In it Black panther sits on his throne, shoulders poking out, feet parallel, more Sailase than Captain America in his presence. The makers of this film are smart in the way they appropriate recognizable cultural references. Not in ways that turn the blackness into a gimmick but rather positions it as valid. Black Panther looks like a seamless marriage of black identity politics and cinematic aesthetics.

Since the trailer has debuted it is estimated to have been seem over 84 million times. 18 million on Youtube alone. But more than just the numbers something else about the teaser has impressed. That is the way that is has allowed black people from different walks of life to have a mutual conversation. On social media people have already been posting pics of the outfits they’ll wear when the movie opens next February. This uninhibited joy at black excellence is what is making the movie valid without a single real of footage having been shown. So next year as we fill up the cinemas, we will have those many names that Sun ra talks about. We might not have our Wakanda yet, but for those two hours the theatre will be our afrotopia.

Writer: Sihle Mthembu