When the Earth shakes, people stop and seek shelter. The illusion of stability falls to the ground and shatters, leaving an uncertain wonder in its wake. Some of us have learned to live in the uncertainty. Several gathered for the “Ferguson Is the Future” event at Princeton University in 2016; more have traveled from state to state, nation to nation, over the last two decades as part of the Black Kirby-inspired “Astroblackness” and “Planet Deep South” conventions.
All of us knew that a new moon was rising over the metropolis this February when Disney/Marvel Studios released its epic film, Black Panther. Following the breakthrough presentation of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, and in the context of the rising demands for greater autonomy after the Obama presidency, Ryan Coogler, Nate Moore, and the team of writers, producers, and actors created a spectacle that defied comparisons to smaller projects like Blade, Spawn, Kazaam, Steel, and other marginal productions. No, the Black Panther merits comparison to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, the second Godfather, and other classic achievements in world cinema. It seized the energy and urgency of projects like Eve’s Bayou, Daughters of the Dust, and The Matrix, yet tempered it with the focus of a genre (and an industry) that has been actively suppressed for a century in the United States. A few of us knew this moment had arrived two years ago, when the African American Intellectual History Society published the “Introduction to the Wakanda Syllabus.” With the unprecedented commercial success of Black Panther, the moment requires a discussion of what comes next.
To start that conversation, a little bit of summary is essential. The authors at the heart of the Black Panther film are not the complete, core creative team of the project. While Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Don McGregor laid elements of the story in place, it was Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, Dwayne McDuffie, and Denys Cowan who made the transformation of the character into a cinematic icon possible. Their work inspired the craft that Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Nnedi Okorafor will complicate in the coming decade.
Yet, this is not their collective project any more than it is Disney’s or Marvel’s. The ultimate test of art always rests with its audiences. While authors share their inspiration, the audience validates these creations. Especially in the cases when art breaks social boundaries and defines new genres like Afrofuturism, audiences have critical roles in the interpretation, promotion, and vitality of the content. Thus, while Priest deftly met editorial demands for his story to attract new audiences, the underlying critiques he constructed in multiple layers (like a modern Anansi) opened the door for the birth of a universe. Yet, it came at the cost of an assumption that the traditional audience of white men who read comics could not tolerate an unapologetic, vocal protagonist. So, Priest’s T’Challa was largely silent; his rare commentary served as flashpoints revealing the depth and complexity of an African icon in western civilization.
Hudlin’s response opened the door to a bombastic, cosmopolitan T’Challa, whose audacity manifested in the Wedding of the Century by liberating the X-Men character Storm (Ororo Munroe) from editorial imprisonment. These challenges carried a cost. The backlash, which Priest had avoided, rose and consumed Hudlin’s narrative, but not before he successfully completed an animated series dedicated to his re-imagining of Priest’s universe.
Over the following decade, Marvel Comics failed to silence the clarion call that Priest and Hudlin sounded. At the core of this unyielding demand for a powerful Wakanda in these fictional universes was the audience. Artists, actors, writers, directors, and scholars who memorized the details of every story, who taught classes and workshops about the importance of Afrofuturism. Beyond the names that seize headlines, thousands of dedicated creators uplift all of the work that celebrates blackness and the African diaspora. This current moment of global recognition belongs to them, more than to anyone else. Their stories and lives show the world how we can move forward together.
During Hudlin’s time as a writer for Marvel Comics, his audience gathered in online forums to discuss his choices and the editorial limitations on his writing. One of the key conversations that shaped the possibilities of the new Black Panther film was the question regarding the deeper cultural significance of Wakanda. While the conversation evolved around the religious factions, the different languages, the landscape variations, the documented political intrigues, and the central theme of isolationism, a breakthrough came in the consideration of the spiritual life of the Wakandan people. This series of insights focused on different forms of indigenous and diasporic African religious expression.
Nowhere in the current film is the impact of that audience’s contributions more apparent. The ancestral plane, or “djalia,” is the most important terrain for the plot and visual artistry of the film. In a story that hinges on the relationship of past and present, and the presumption that history continues to live through us, the djalia presents the reality that our choices and decisions have profound impacts that shape humanity as a species. The central conflict between T’Challa and Erik Stevens (Killmonger) is a direct reflection and consequence of N’Jobu’s disagreement with his brother, T’Chaka, twenty-six years earlier. Indeed, in the final scene of the djalia, T’Challa’s rejection of his ancestors’ choices of isolationism marks a new beginning for the nation and the world, as well as T’Challa’s rebirth as a symbol for human dignity.
The protagonist’s transformation is an outgrowth of the moral urgency that Ramonda, Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and Ayo present throughout the film. Okoye and Nakia provide the strength of the narrative transformation, starting with the confrontation with a Boko Haram analogue in rural Nigeria. Okoye reminds T’Challa to focus on the task; Nakia moves quickly to assist in the defeat of the terrorist cell before Okoye arrives to prevent any bloodshed. While T’Challa has significant moments of heroism in the scene, his relationships with the women around him define the character for the first half of the film.
The depth and variety of the roles women play in society receives its first showcase in the approach to Warrior Falls for T’Challa’s ascension as king. The setting is more magnificent than the renderings in the comic books. Unlike the helicopter explosion at the end of the escape scene in the original Matrix film (which caused McDuffie to exclaim that comics had lost their advantages over film, due to CGI), the resplendent majesty of Warrior Falls combines both the natural grandeur with the human tapestry of ceremonial fashion. T’Challa’s walk into the scene ushers the audience into the central theater of Wakanda – a landscape simultaneously ancient, modern, and eternal, populated with a people whose beauty and wisdom fuels the current rapture in global media. The women of Wakanda model the possibilities of future worlds that surpass Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visions about the contents of our character. They offer a womanhood beyond respectability.
The most critical voices regarding the Black Panther as a film emphasized perceptions about the divisions among different ethnicities of the African diaspora, the naïveté of placing a CIA operative at the heart of the Wakandan Design Group, and the myopia of a mythical African nation that would ignore slavery, war, genocide, and disease at the expense of humanity. Taken in isolation, this film offers little to challenge these criticisms. However, the narrative evolution across media presents unending waves of responses. At the most basic level, this initial feature presentation represents slightly more than half of Coogler’s vision for this story. The director’s cut exceeded four hours and will provide many new insights into the larger scope of the project. Indeed, this film is the first of (at least) two projects about this character, these families, this nation, and this world.
Even given the limitations of the initial Wakanda Syllabus, there are thousands of narratives to explore pan-African Afrofuturism as an array of aesthetic choices to create new institutions that sustain equal justice for all people. The most cursory examination of the source material shows that agent Everett Ross becomes a champion for Wakanda against the imperial ambitions of his home government. The more important criticism is the reduction of Ulysses Klaue to a peripheral arms dealer. In the narrative history, Klaw is the evolving embodiment of colonialism. He becomes virtually indestructible, becoming sonic energy, always destined to threaten Wakanda and human freedom again. Klaue should have been the museum curator, not her murderer. In that way, Coogler and the writers could have confronted the structures of global media that enabled this project, even as it threatened their work with cooptation.
Here is where the audience’s power to resist the imperatives of consumer capitalism can shape the future of this narrative most forcefully. In the Marvel Universe, the Black Panther has ascended beyond the role of king and chieftain as established in this first film. ***spoilers*** T’Challa in the comic narrative faces horror and devastation, losing his title, entrusting his kingdom to Shuri, and facing Thanos multiple times in conflicts surrounding the Infinity Stones. At the peak of the conflict, T’Challa helps to save the people who can preserve the universe. Then, in the battle to restore reality, he wields the Infinity Gauntlet in battle. Even in momentary defeat, he restores Wakanda and Earth to its status prior to destruction. In the years that follow, the Black Panther becomes an avatar of the pinnacle of human intellect, spirituality, and physical perfection. Yet, he also reflects humanity’s struggles and failures.
As a result, Wakanda is no longer an isolated region in central Africa. Indeed, Wakanda becomes the foremost nation on the planet, a beacon inspiring continuous achievement over centuries and millennia. In the wake of this film, the comic narrative begins to explore the possibility of a future where Wakanda spans a galaxy. ***end spoilers*** Wakanda’s principles of democracy, dignity, balance, and wholeness shape the future of countless billions of species.
How, then, do we move towards such opportunities for better futures? Marvel Comics proposed an intellectual framework named “Iso-8” – particles like bosons that comprise stability and adaptation simultaneously. They replace fragmented particles (“Iso-7”), symbols of the flawed narratives that died over the last fifty years. Iso-8 offers possibilities of creating just and inclusive realities going forward. To this end, leaders must see the Wakandas that already exist around the world. The habits of critical analysis have enabled writers to see the most minute flaws in the most daring and inspirational creations.
Can the critical eye turn toward the creative hand in affirmation? Instead of seeing the failures of African governance, what are its successes? Where can these initiatives expand to transcend the limitations of colonialism and these recent decades of independence? How can the families and communities most inspired by a film like Black Panther create connections and institutions across the nations of the Caribbean and into the impoverished Afro-Latino communities of South America and Central America?
The frameworks of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black Greek Letter Organizations, and the networks of black churches and religious networks are all struggling to find new vision to harness their historic missions, to breathe new life into the future agendas. Here, now – a generation of artists, educators, leaders, and financiers stand to combine the inspiration that generated a billion dollars of revenue in a single month with the longstanding structures of the struggle for universal human rights.
“What does a nation of farmers have to offer?” Ourselves, each other, and our limitless creativity.
Dr. Walter Greason is a professor and Dean of the Honors School at Monmouth University. His research focuses on the comparative, economic analysis of slavery, industrialization, and suburbanization. With a variety of co-editors, Dr. Greason has published Planning Future Cities (2017) – an innovative look at architecture, urbanism, and municipal design – as well as The American Economy (2016) – a provocative examination of race, property, and wealth in the United States since 1750. His scholarly monograph, Suburban Erasure , won the Best Work of Non-Fiction award from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance in 2014. He also won grants from the Mellon Foundation (2011) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (2016).