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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Whirlwind Weekend in Wakanda

Trying to keep spirits lifted can seem an insurmountable task lately.

The highly hypocritical and near-farcical antics spilling from Washington, D.C. The steady revelations about the depths of depravity concerning sexual harassment and assault. The hail of bullets too often visiting communities large and small – along with the obligatory “thoughts and prayers” that have all the hollowness and even less usefulness of a toilet paper tube.

And on. And on. It’s been tough just finding air amid the ceaseless swell.

And then came Black Panther.

Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther
Howard University alum Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther

The landmark Marvel film is helping to make this February a blackity black Black History Month for the pop culture ages. The President’s Day weekend debut has surpassed all box office expectations and proven a lie of the black-themed-films-don’t-sell excuse studios have used to justify limited releases featuring diverse casts.

While the usual Marvel fanboy crowd is nestled in those seats, make no mistake. The engine powering this record-breaking surge of sales is coming from those deemed “sons of bitches” as well as those from “shithole countries” – recent descriptors of advocates and immigrants by the current U.S. president (among other choice racist diatribes).

In droves, we piled into theatres with family, friends, church groups, school mates and loved ones to refute such sentiments and instead watch an intelligent and complex protagonist who looked like us swoop across the screen to save the day. This time, his name wasn’t Obama but T’Challa – the Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and, after 50 years of existence, finally getting his close up on the silver screen.

Certainly, this latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t solely a “race” movie. It is a Marvel superhero flick, after all, with all the requisite and entertaining whiz bang effects, tensions and laugh lines. But what sets this one apart clearly are markers of black excellence featured full frontal, compliments of director and co-writer Ryan Coogler and his own assemblage of Africana avengers.

The lineage of his actors spans the Diaspora – including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tobago, Kenya, Guyana, Iraq, South Africa and the United States. Coogler drew talent trained at the finest institutions, which of course includes HBCUs like Howard and Hampton. And he presented a story of a place ground in myth, inflected with urban reality and glistening with progress uninterrupted and untainted by colonialism, sexism or any other ill-placed “ism.” 
Healthy black love, Black Panther-style
The Wakandan view on relationships: partners and equals
Coogler lifted the idea of Wakanda from a comic book’s pages and planted its aspiration firmly in the imagination of millions, of all ages.

The response was immediate and evident in the resplendent fabrics, cosplay and Huey P. Newton-styled apparel of resistance showcased by moviegoers worldwide using full sartorial scope to convey solidarity.

Indeed, it was a Calgon-like moment to be swept into a world where brown-skinned characters played center stage, not just sidekicks on the fringes; where a woman’s grit did not negate her softness or equality; where men display affection as easily as strength; and where tradition did not hamper modernity.

Black and brown people showed we are here for that – from LA to London, Lagos to Lahore, and beyond.

Ever since the official trailer about Marvel’s first African superhero started circulating last year, tongues were wagging and panting for this release. A film helmed by charismatic non-white leads has provided both a welcome distraction and reframing of our collective cultural lens. It has led to a zeitgeist exploring what heights could exist if we no longer accepted European standards as the only one worthy of merit. The embrace of this film and concept could be seen in celebrity and citizen philanthropic efforts to send kids to see the film to celebratory screening parties such as the Wakanday/Vibranium Nights affair hosted by I Am Black Sci-Fi.

Celebrating Black Panther
Escapism remains one of the markers of strong filmmaking, and the best movies often arise in the worst of times. Given all that faces us, this weekend retreat in a mythic space where neither blackness nor any of its physical, cultural or spiritual attributes equated inferiority created a new kind of rejuvenation.

Its effects may even prove lasting. That's an Afrofuturistic outlook that truly would be welcome.