I did not follow the Black Panther comic book series as a young black boy, but, now, as an adult, given everything that has happened this past year, I am looking forward to the Black Panther movie as if it is the love child of Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” raised by astronaut, Dr. Mae C. Jemison, and astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and is destined to spread an African Holy Ghost throughout the world. I want to see how profitable the film will be since that will influence how much support major studios give to other movies with a substantial amount of black talent in front of and behind the camera. I would like to know the demographic breakdown of the individuals who stand in ticket lines during the movie’s opening weekend. And I would especially love to see how young black people, who are growing up in an era where their murders are routinely televised, will react to a big-budget film that highlights black creativity, intellect and power in an African setting.
As background, the Black Panther first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1966. The Atlantic’s national correspondent and Between the World and Me author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is writing the latest version of the superhero’s comic book series. The Black Panther’s real name is T’Challa, and he is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda was never colonized, and it is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. The Black Panther is a genius with superhuman-strength and reflexes. He must also balance his commitments as a superhero for the world and as the king of his homeland. The movie will apparently highlight this tension when the Black Panther returns to Wakanda to face internal threats that could possibly lead to a world war.
We will have to wait until February 16, 2018 to see how director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station; Creed) maximized the considerable talents of the cast, including Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakai, a member of T’Challa’s all-female unit of bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, and Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, T’Challa’s main adversary. The Black Panther teaser trailer, however, premiered during Game 4 of the NBA Finals on June 9, 2017, and it was viewed 89 million times in the first 24 hours of its debut. There, thus seems to be some interest in the movie.
In particular, I would like to know how young black people will be engaged during the lead-up to and actual theatrical run of the film. Right now, young black people are inundated with direct and indirect messages that their bodies, minds, and history do not matter. Bullets from unjust police officers and vigilantes act as letters that spell out death sentences on their bodies. Many are restricted by underfunded and understaffed educational systems because the larger society does not truly believe that they can achieve academic excellence, especially in the highly lucrative science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. And, although there are Afrocentric schools of thought within the black community, many black youth are also bombarded with misguided notions that the continent of Africa is a monolithic space filled with disease, jungles, and bloated stomachs and that their own family trees began with slavery so that not even their greatest-great ancestors had any control over the blood in their veins, the cells in their brains, or the souls in their bodies.
This thus leads some black youth to wonder how long do they have to live and what for. It makes some question whether blackness is a learning disability. It makes some mock the accents and names that their own forebears may have had when they were living in their own communities in pre-colonial Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, or other African countries. And it makes some feel like they come from absolutely nothing.
In light of the consistent physical, mental, emotional and spiritual onslaught that is directed at black youth, I wonder how the Black Panther movie will be marketed to them and how they will be influenced by the film itself. For example, Straight Outta Compton encouraged people from literally all types of backgrounds to represent where they’re from on social media. Hidden Figures has been used to promote STEM careers to young people, especially black girls, who probably had no idea that before they were even thought of black women had already been performing complex and critical mathematical calculations at the highest levels for years. And the Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton, energized by its diverse cast and blessed by the miracle that is hip-hop, led to the creation of a New York City public high school history curriculum based on the musical.
With all this in mind, who knows what type of impact Black Panther is capable of? Since certain aspects of the movie are drawn from actual African ethnic groups (e.g., the fashion in Wakanda is partially based on the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania), teachers could help their students learn more about the specific cultures that served as inspiration for the eye-catching outfits in the film. Instructors could then build on this curiosity by teaching students about various ethnic groups in other African nations. These lessons could help students gain a better appreciation of the fact that the creativity that they observe in modern-day celebrities and display in their own lives existed in Africa long before their ancestors first set foot on the American quicksand that sucked their physical freedom into the ground. This Black Panther related exploration of the continent could thus lead more students to view African cultures as distinct expressions of life that they want to see, hear, feel, taste, smell and ultimately claim as their own.
Since the Black Panther’s home country of Wakanda has superior technology, schools, youth programs and tech companies could also encourage students to design their own “Wakandan” inventions. In particular, these organizations could host contests that call for students of all ages to write papers about, draw blueprints for, and/or create computer models of the cutting-edge technology that could come from Wakanda. Since myriad black students never see actual black scientists in person or learn about the various contributions of black scientists in school, these Wakanda-themed projects could be the first time that some of them start to even imagine that it would not only be possible, but even natural, for people who look like them to master scientific concepts.
Given the actual accomplishments of black scientists, such hypothetical motivation should not be necessary. However, for many people, they only know what they have been exposed to, even if it is not technically real. Thus, although scholars may have studied astronomy and medicine in Timbuktu in pre-colonial Mali, many black students will never be taught such black scientific history and they may thus think that it has already been predetermined from above that math and science are just not for them.
However, if some of these students are able to see black men and women, albeit fictional, manipulating math and science for their own benefit, then they may be better able to understand that the very same equations that seem to ridicule and haunt them could one day be the basis for their own empowerment. If various entities encourage black students to immerse themselves in the scientific possibilities of Wakanda, then that could be the first step in sparking some students’ interest in creating culture-defining technology of their own on the Southside of Chicago, in West Baltimore, in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, in Southeast D.C., or in any other community that could be a Little Wakanda in the making with the right vision and genuine investment.
Since Black Panther will also address the reasoning and actions of the black leader of a powerful nation, it could be useful for schools and youth programs to ask students to write essays about what they would do if they led Wakanda. For young black people who may feel like they have no power over what happens in their world, nation, states, cities, neighborhoods, schools, or homes, thinking about what they would do as the leader of Wakanda could be a vital mental departure from the typical confines of their age and race. Since they cannot currently vote and they can be murdered by the state with impunity, it may be worthwhile for them to imagine what they would do if they were the ones people looked to for guidance instead of looked down on and they were the ones who made life-or-death decisions for the masses on a daily basis instead of having their times of death determined by others who do not view them as full human beings.
Although this generation of young black Americans grew up with a black president, and there have obviously been black leaders of Caribbean and African nations and various political entities for years, these young people would have been removed from the Obama presidency for at least a year by the time that Black Panther comes out and they may not have ever learned about the numerous black presidents, prime ministers, kings, and chiefs throughout the world who preceded President Obama. The larger-than-life visual of a national black leader could therefore be a sight for their sore eyes in February 2018. Contemplating, and writing about, what they would do if they had the immense political power of the Black Panther could thus help keep the seemingly impossible on their radar and whet their appetites for acquiring more tangible control in their own lives one thought, and one action, at a time.
Overall, it’s unclear right now whether Black Panther will have a widespread impact on young black people living in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, if the movie causes even one more black child to feel a little more connected to her African heritage, a little more confident in pursuing a STEM career, or a little more determined to become a leader, then I think that in itself is a power that should be taken seriously.