By now you may have heard of the phenomenon that is Black Panther. The excitement and buzz around this movie is justified, for a variety of reasons that I will get to, but I think to do that I need to provide a bit of context for you. I own Third Coast Comics, a comic book and graphic novel shop on Chicago's north side. I also host big nerd movie screening events because I hate leaving the possibility of promoting comics up to Hollywood.
At our Black Panther screening, we sold out an entire theater and even got to take 25 kids from a youth program who might not have had a chance to see the movie at all, sponsored by the Chicago Nerd Social Club. The excitement from the lobby to the seats was palpable. Every kid in that group was able to look up at a screen and see someone being heroic, sensational, intelligent and clever, who looked just like them. The fact that it was a Marvel movie adds greater validity. This movie was groundbreaking and, hopefully, it can be formative. I even gave them all a free Black Panther comic! You should have heard the cheers and seen the spilled popcorn.
Many of the people I serve are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe even if they don't know the entire 50+ year history of the Marvel comic book universe. My customers have up to this point been entertained and have supported the MCU so deeply that it's only natural to look for the one thing any diverse group of nerds would want when supporting something like this: representation.
Representation is vitally important. People need to see characters and stories that reflect their worldview. For decades the worldview in these stories has largely been a European one, in which POC have been along for the ride. In my shop, I make it a point to break out of this cycle in the way we curate and stock. When a giant nerd-related movie debuts, I take almost 200 customers to see the movie, with the idea being that I want to marry your current interest with my source material... and if there can be greater social context, then all the better.
I grew up collecting comic books in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, and it was always easy to find comics featuring white guys in masks or aliens from other worlds or misunderstood monsters. But it was not always easy to find comics featuring black heroes, male or female, who possessed agency and existed front and center in the comics in which they appeared. I watched a lot of sci-fi growing up but while there may have been black characters, the stories were not their stories.
When I was a kid, I could chase down appearances of Green Lantern John Stewart, The Falcon, Black Lightning, Luke Cage, Storm, Misty Knight, and Cyborg, but every kid buying comics in my neighborhood knew that at the top of the mountain was King T'Challa, the Black Panther. The Black Panther was the first black superhero, created with such resourcefulness, poise, nobility and depth that it was clear that he was not going to be a sidekick or stereotype.
He wasn't just heroic; he was also regal. As the King of Wakanda, he was sworn to protect his home and its citizens, but he'd also decided that Wakanda could only remain safe if he helped the outer world remain safe too. This is a great source of conflict for him. This is what also makes him relatable. It's the push and pull between power and responsibility. It's us wanting home to be safe but also knowing the lives of our neighbors matter.
In the film, you can see his loyalty to his family and country but you can also see where the history of isolationist Wakanda might have kept it from doing the best it could do in the world and T'Challa knows it. Even the antagonists in the film, Erik Killmonger and M'Baku, have issues with T'Challa that center on honor and loyalty, even if they are willing to cross lines to have these issues addressed.
The history of Wakanda is one of never having been colonized. This is clear in the movie; there is nothing in the film that lacks a feeling that it was steeped in African culture and lore. Wakandans have also managed to achieve a life that is sustainable. Just because you have vast resources, you don't need to be wasteful, which in turn leads to conflict with the outside world. Wakandans maintain a connection to their past and have no problems living in an Afro-futuristic landscape. The tribespeople who live outside the major cities can live as hunter-gatherers by choice but always have access to the Vibranium delivered technology of their greater society.
Black Panther is a look at a future that is not purely through a European lens. Like the synthesis of Wakandan society in the film, we the audience are bringing an understanding of what has happened in the past, representationally, while also firmly holding a fist in the air and saying we can see an inclusive future where the work will not be easy but must still be done just the same.