Black Panther is not a superhero movie.
It is a battle for the souls of Black folks. Ferociously attacking and digging its powerful claws into everything we thought we understood about Wakanda, class privilege, and wealth, Black Panther demands that we look hard at the effects of imperialism, colonialism and the broken and scattered relationships between Black people across the globe – even as it draws us together in a spirit of celebration.
Black Panther is our reckoning. It is a call to action and a call to arms to the children of the Black diaspora. More specifically, it is a challenge to Black Americans to stand and own responsibility for the bloodline we claim and to take retribution for the blood we’ve shed.
This is a cinematic allegory that boils down to – “gather your fam, man,” but does so with the firm, yet gentle hand of admonishment from an elder, and the grace and beauty of a waking dream. In this dream, we envision a world where we are free to be our unfettered, celebrated selves, where we know our own, and our Blackness is not subject to inspection, validation, or cross-checking. In a world where every Black person is a native son or daughter, no demonstration of Black excellence is in service to white supremacy.
The rise of one uplifts us all. The crying shame is that it was necessary to imagine such a place because none exist on this earth.
The months we spent dreaming of this undiscovered land, and the pains we took to celebrate the viewings of this film, revealed a need to experience our own Blackness more powerfully. The location might be fictional, but the need for it is anything but. We’ve suffered a centuries-long withdrawal from the power that comes with connection to our source. And this disconnect has lasted so long we have no specific home to claim. And so, we’ve embraced a homeland that shaped in our collective imaginings – that homeland is Wakanda.
In our festive costumes, quasi-authentic African dress, and celebratory couture, we are Wakanda’s lost children, validating and reifying our Blackness through an impossible fairytale that dares us to dream of a world where we actually have the power that we know should be our blood right. Much like the antagonist of the film – or rather, the film’s anti-hero, we ache to claim Wakanda’s power and majesty as our own.
And Black Panther is conscious of our pain. This bittersweet ache to belong is reflected back at us as the story spills out before us. And so, the experience of seeing Black Panther and the content of Black Panther are one. The film indulges our fantasy that we are Wakanda but demands that we own the responsibility of that lineage and privilege.
In Wakanda we see our Family portrait. Big Family, with a capital “F,” the universal “Us” we refer to when we talk about “how we do,” and the cloud-memory of Blackness where keep and back-up the innate understandings of our culture. When viewing the film, nobody has to tell you who the saved, good uncle who quietly paid for your textbooks your first year in college is, or which one is the ratchet-ass, hood-nigga cousin that always shows up with his boys to wreck shop at the family reunion.No one needs to spell out the messy auntie, or the cranky Grandmama who has abdicated her role as matriarch but reserves the right to snatch up the acting figureheads of the family. They emerge on the screen as kings, queens and members of the court – but you see them for who they are. And you love them as they are, because they are Us, and it is understood.
And because so much of or Black identity is rooted in common understanding, it is devastating when family secrets are revealed that betray the lies we thought we “knew” to be true. We are shook when we learn that Big Mama or Big Daddy wasn’t always a saint, that blood aint all blood, and that somewhere on our family tree there was a branch that broke off and needs to be grafted back on.
As it is with real family, when our most sainted and beautiful are revealed to be flawed and disappointing, and we must choose between forgiveness and grace or shaming and shunning, the film draws us near to the dream and then violently shakes us awake to ask – are we still willing to love an imperfect Wakanda? And if Wakanda is a picture of us – can we love our imperfect selves? Can we love our imperfect and unfamiliar siblings? What is the threshold for love within the context of Blackness?
Black Panther is about trying –and sometimes failing – to connect with a home we never knew. In the midst of the ceremonial majesty, the vividness and vibrancy of unchecked Black expression, and the fluid grace of Black bodies moving free, is a cautionary tale about how white theft, and the subsequent white counter-intelligence and white training, conspire with Black isolationism to make us see each other as interlopers, refugees and even enemies. Black Panther centers itself in the broken hearts of Black people, the spilled blood of our forefathers, and the bitter tears of our forgotten and cast off brothers and sisters.
Black Panther speaks to us in our native tongue. We hear our tongue spoken fluently across languages accents and dialects. Our ‘isms’ and our catchphrases, the things we don’t say in front of white people and the things we say without words to make good and damn sure white people understand us the way we understand each other. This is family business and the film makes no bones about telling white people as much. You’re here to witness and that in and of itself is a privilege, but you will know and remain in, your role.
The narrative then turns back to us and admonishes us for the times we put family business out in the street and left our brothers and sisters vulnerable to the scourge of colonialism and supremacy. And now that they are at our front gate with the stink of it still in their clothes, what are we going to do for them?
Or – are we them? Perhaps we are the stinking, lost children at the gate, begging a meal from the home we never knew, turning down our bottom lip to prove we are blood – praying that our long lost family does not turn their nose up at us. The question that demands our attention is; where is Wakanda and why has she been hiding herself from us? And the movie compels us to realize that Wakanda is relative. Any place where Black people have means to make dreams happen, where we move with relative ease and liberty, where we can establish community is a Wakanda to someone. So what are we saying to the children at our gate? We are richer than the baseless and arrogant white idea of us. We are far richer than we have ever let on, far richer than we’ve dared to believe. We can afford to uplift each other, we can afford to protect ourselves, we can afford to be free. It is our birthright and the responsibility of our blood. The responsibility we have as lost children who survived far from the home we never knew but still claim.
And if we are to claim Wakanda we must own it all, the wealth and the responsibility, the pride and the shame. The family we have always known and the lost children left behind. We have to show our true face to the world and gather our fam and build the home that colonialism tried to decimate. In Black Panther, we are Black first, and Family forever.
Wakanda Forever. Wakanda Forever. Wakanda Forever.