Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole's film Black Panther, based on a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, opened in February 2018 to worldwide excitement. It drew incredibly enthusiastic crowds who often returned to see the film again, drawn by the positive representations of African men and women, as well as a solid story, fabulous costumes, and fun special effects. Eighteenth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of films, Black Panther ranked ninth in all-time worldwide earnings for the studio in less than six months. (1) Produced by Kevin Feige and David J. Grant, this Marvel Studios film made with a $200 million budget may be as significant in the near term in the United States as Alex Haley's Roots (1977) and it may have an unprecedented impact in global conversations about the complexities of slavery, colonialism, African diaspora relations, identity and the social, gender and economic transformations now taking place in the fifty-five nations of the African Union.
Before the Roots miniseries, few television shows in the United States featured mostly African American actors and role models for African American children were seen in situation comedies like Good Times (1974-1979) about an African American family living in a public housing high-rise apartment in Chicago or The Jeffersons (1975-1985) about a successful African American entrepreneur who moved his family to a high-rise luxury apartment in New York City. After school, African American children could read Ebony Jr! magazine. Those were scarce and precious media places in 1975, days when some African Americans would call family and friends to say, "There's one of us on TV now! Hurry before you miss them. Turn to channel...." While this was common for diaspora Africans in Western or Eastern nations, it is not common in nations like Senegal where it is rare to see a white person on television. The Roots mini-series disarmed any fantasies of benevolent slavery over its eight evenings of prime-time national television and it raised questions about the nations on the continent of Africa who exported people from beyond neighboring nations. We remembered the conversations that took place in schools and work places. As historians who lived through the Roots culture shock of 1977 and who see a similar moment happening this year, we wondered if we could gather enough immediate responses to the Black Panther to merit a special edition of a journal. We are grateful to our senior editor Itibari M. Zulu for opening this journal to help educators find resources and inspiration for lesson plans for the 2018-2019 academic year, and beyond.
This special edition of Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies is an effort to capture the Black Panther moment as reflected upon by a diverse group of scholars who answered a call for papers issued March 6, 2018, and their essays and poems were due on May 15, which unknown to us in March, was the day that the Blu-ray disc version was released for purchase. We asked for submissions in poetry, prose or script from those willing to self-identify at least one factor of their own uniqueness as it informs their reflection on the film Black Panther, that diversity including factors like race, gender, sexuality, family status, continent, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, language, scholarly rank, political persuasion, classroom audience and academic discipline. Authors were asked to anticipate questions, inspire and inform conversations in the classroom, in media or any place where youth and adults exchange ideas. We asked that they include references to resources to assist educators in preparing informed and quality discussions and assignments. Our diversity goal has been achieved and our contributors hail from several academic disciplines with varying degrees and years of expertise. Global diversity exceeded our hopes with authors identifying with or writing from Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Curacao, Guyana, Jamaica, rural and urban communities in the north, south and coastal regions of the United States. We received proposals for more reflections than appear here. We selected reflections that provide different perspectives on the conversation topics that emerged from the responses. We are grateful to the eighteen authors whose reflections follow this introduction.
About the Film and the Marvel Comic Universe
The excitement that met the opening of Black Panther befitted a landmark in popular culture. Marvel comics fans looked for continuity in the comic book series that debuted in the 1960s. Bloggers and journalists began writing more than a year before the film was released. In the United States, the initial conversation centered on this being a superhero film directed and written by African Americans with an almost exclusively black cast and a budget to afford CGI. In the foreign press and increasingly in the United States, the conversation turned on the number of nations and cultures represented in the cast and the number of African languages used. From there, the conversations became more complex.
The hero of the film is King T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) who struggles with villain Erik "Killmonger" Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) for control of the fictional African country of Wakanda. The film asks about our obligations to help our neighbors when doing so may pose an existential threat and a security risk. Wakandans used a rare metal, vibranium, to become the most technologically advanced and prosperous nation on the planet, but the Wakandans present themselves to the rest of the world as poor farmers. They use their technology to project a holographic image of a rainforest in order to shield their skyscrapers, flying cars and other advanced technology from outsiders. Much of the attraction of the film lies in the portrayal of an African superhero.
Black Panther is a product of 1960s politics, African imagery and science fiction. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (d. 1994), white New York City natives, responded to the era's demand for Black Power with a Black superhero. T'Challa first appeared in July 1966 in Marvel Comic's Fantastic Four series. Lee and Kirby showed Wakanda as an Afrofuturistic wonderland where African tradition and advanced scientific technology combine. It was initially portrayed as a country where hypermasculine men dominated, (2) in sharp contrast to the movie and to more recent versions of the comic book which give considerable space to powerful African women. The movie is a version of Afro-futurism, a genre that draws from social movements, technology, music, religion and literature. In the United States, it is linked with the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s but it also has roots in science fiction. According to Reynaldo Anderson, contemporary Afro-futurism of the kind seen in this movie connects the aesthetics of technology to an African humanist past. (3) We present reflections about such possibilities and realities in order to encourage and support related conversations about history and theory, spirituality, identity and community because the Black Panther film as Afro-futurism serves a powerful role of social criticism when it reflects current dystopias and displays possible utopias to which...