The Call of Wakanda

 The Dora Milaje of  Black Panther . Left to right: Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). © Marvel Studios 2018

The Dora Milaje of Black Panther. Left to right: Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). © Marvel Studios 2018

 

If you’re like me, you made sure to get to theaters early to see Black Panther.

Unlike diehard comic fans, I wasn’t exposed to Black Panther until he was revived by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2016, so I had to play catch up. Black Panther is the first major standalone Black superhero, created by Marvel in 1966–but he isn’t just a superhero. He’s also the king of the most advanced society in the world; a demigod endowed with superpowers by the Panther Goddess; the responsible protector of the only source of vibranium, the most powerful (fictional) element on Earth; and one of the top five intellects in the world. He is a scientist, inventor, experienced diplomat… he’s everything. He’s like Tony Stark, but instead of just believing he’s a god, T’Challa actually kind of is one. 

But he’s still Black, so for decades, his story has been brushed to the side. Finally, after Disney acquired Marvel Studios in 2009, the studio put its full weight behind a Black Panther movie. Lo and behold it’s exceeded all expectations. As I write, the film has amassed nearly $748 million worldwide and it hasn’t had a third weekend yet. Much of the success of the film is due to its all-star cast, brilliant writing and acting, breathtaking set and cinematography. One aspect of the film that can’t be examined enough is its contribution to the ever-growing creative posture known as afro-futurism.

I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be a Black person in a world untouched by slavery.

I remember the awe as a middle schooler watching Missy Elliott dance and do all sorts of gravity defying stunts in her dystopian future world with gorgeous Black men and women dancing alongside her dressed to slay. She painted images of the future that portrayed Black women with dark skin and thick thighs saving the world. She cast herself and other Black women as the center of the future universe not as sidekicks to the stories of Black men or the “sassy Black friend” of the White blonde woman trying to take NYC or LA. In the world Missy Elliott dreamt about with her director Hype Williams and producer Timbaland, women are the standard by which the galaxy is judged.

Afro-futurism imagines what the world will be like for Black people in the future, as opposed to the classic Black films set in the present or past. Developed in the 1950s, the genre has been utilized by a variety of artists and authors, including Octavia Butler, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe. Often set in dystopian worlds or outer space, afrofuturistic work focuses on survival, and what group of people has been set up more perfectly to survive than Black people, and specifically African-Americans, who are descendants of slaves, the largest group of Black people with no land to call home? Unwanted in Africa, unwanted in the USA; despite holding limited resources, this group of people has managed to survive hundreds of years of abuse and antagonism from “their country.”

Wakanda, with its technology that goes far beyond our current world’s capabilities, is an important part of afro-futurism because Wakanda has never been colonized. It is ruled by Black people who never had to experience the cruelty of colonialism. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be a Black person in a world untouched by slavery, much less to have the luxury of growing up in a country where people who look like me are held up as the standard of beauty; to never read about how my people are lacking in intelligence, or are lazy, incapable, thugs, drug addicts, or worse.

Similarly, in Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe’s creations, Black women are free: free from objectification, free from being property, free to experiment sexually, free to dance, to laugh, to love, to rule, to simply be. In her music video for “Pass That Dutch,” Missy cast herself as Earth’s representative to aliens and wrote a new Constitution. In her “Sock It 2 Me” video, she played the powerful video game hero Mega Man. Consistently, she gives herself power in a world does nothing but strip power away from Black women.

Monáe uses the future as allegory, taking on issues like racism, sexism and queerphobia in a humans-versus-androids narrative. In using the future, Monáe instructs listeners and viewers in the present on how to live justly. Monáe has centered her entire musical career on the narrative of Cindi Mayweather, the Archandroid: the original android that started all humanoid android bots. She is the Black Eve for androids, yet she is on the run; the powers that be can’t stand her funky grooves and rhythms that set both people and androids free and encourage them to see the humanity in everyone and everything.


The film doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to the troubles of the Black diaspora, but I don’t believe Coogler was attempting to give one. Rather, he sought to pose a question: Where do we go from here?


In a similar manner Ryan Coogler sets Wakanda up to teach us something. It isn’t the perfect utopia we dream of at night, and even this society can’t solve problems facing those of us who still deal with consequences from the Black diaspora. Coogler didn’t include queer Black representation or people with disabilities, and for some reason there were no heavier Wakandans. There are many Black people who exist in the present who won’t see themselves in the futuristic utopia of Coogler’s imagination.

Like the art of Monáe and Elliott, this Wakanda is still the most incredibly womanist society I’ve ever seen. After all, this film shows women can be Black Panthers too. When T’Challa goes to meet with his ancestors, there are women there: past Black Panthers. In the comics, Shuri rules as Black Panther for a time. And the Dora Milaje weren’t presented as femme fatales, but strong, intensely loyal, principled warriors. At multiple points in the film when T’Challa needs guidance, he turns to the women in his life and takes their advice. He trusts them and respects them as his equals, which is a very radical stance to take, considering that the top motion pictures of 2017 barely passed the Bechdel Test. In creating a womanist society, Coogler critiques the present and points towards the future.

Making the world better requires a recognition that the world is filled with stories that center more than just Chad and Becky with the good hair.

The film doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to the troubles of the Black diaspora, but I don’t believe Coogler was attempting to give one. Rather, he sought to pose a question: Where do we go from here? And clearly he plans on taking us on a journey to answer that question. This film is the foundation from which he plans to build a world where Black people can thrive. I hope that major studios follow Marvel’s lead and allow other people to present to their visions of the future.

I want to see Marvel continue its experiments with diversity and bring Kamala Khan to life in a Ms. Marvel movie. I’d like to see the Miles Morales Spiderman brought to life instead of another generic cis-het skinny twink-esque White man. I want Storm to finally be presented the right way, with dark skin and actual personality. I want to see more Black films with big budgets that don’t have the name “Tyler Perry” attached to them. I want movies where Asian men are the leads, I want to see Muslim women casts as the leads, I want people with disabilities in films that have nothing to do with them looking for a “cure” of some sort. Making the world better requires a recognition that the world is filled with stories that center more than just Chad and Becky with the good hair. We have to be mindful of the ways we spend our money and which films and albums and television shows we support. We must engage our politicians so they legislate a world that reflects the values we hold dear.

This is the call of Wakanda to our society: to have higher aspirations, to develop a pride which calls us to create more justice and equity for all people. Like Wakanda, it’s going to have flaws. But it’s our call to pitch in and push to make this dream a reality.

 

MORE BY jarell wilson