A lot of praise and distinctions were heaped on Black Panther even before the movie was released: cultural phenomenon, broken box-office records, unlike any superhero film that came before.
That’s a lot of hype for any movie — but it’s hype that we need to pay attention to, because Black Panther is bringing political questions and arguments home to a whole new audience.
So if you don’t know anything about the character Black Panther, let’s have a little Geek 101 session. Black Panther was the first Black superhero who wasn't based off a trope or just a sidekick.
Black Panther was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and appeared for the first time in Fantastic Four issue #52 in July 1966. Shortly before the issue was released, the New York Times ran an article about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, whose logo was the Black Panther.
The organisation, led by the increasingly radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was referred to as the Black Panther Party.
Marvel changed the name of the character from Black Panther to Black Leopard, first introducing the change in Fantastic Four Issue #119, but the new name only lasted about a year before being changed back.
The character became Black Panther again because Black readers took issue with the name change, but also because Marvel’s demographic at the time was college-aged students who supported the Black Panther Party and were taking part in the civil rights movement.
They were able to use the Black Panther character to help educate people about the liberation struggles under way. The Black Panther comic was made more relevant and meaningful by the conflation with the Black Panther Party.
Black Panther, or T’Challa, is the king of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, which is the wealthiest nation on the planet because it has vibranium.
Vibranium is an alien material that came to Wakanda via a meteorite. It possesses the ability to absorb all vibrations in the vicinity, as well as kinetic energy directed at it.
To protect themselves from forces that would like to take vibranium, the people of Wakanda have decided to hide by making the rest of the world think that theirs is just another colonised African country. They hide their wealth, weapons and technological advancements.
In the comics, T’Challa is an Oxford graduate with a PhD in physics, and is considered one of the top five minds on the planet. He also has enhanced abilities, such as healing, speed and agility, from a herb that grows where the vibranium meteorite crashed. This herb is only given to the Panther royal hierarchy and heirs.
Wakandans worship Bast, a female deity also known as the Panther God. Bast is the protector and defender of the nation, and Black Panther is her agent outside the spirit realm. Wakandan women are highly respected because of Bast, and the king's personal guard is the Dora Milaje, an elite female fighting force.
All this existed when the story was a comic series, but nevertheless, the movie matters. It matters because of its representation of Blackness and Black characters as the main characters in their own story. It is also the best representation of women in a superhero film.
Being represented in a Hollywood movie may not translate directly into revolution, but it plays a role in building confidence. This can create fertile ground for starting a movement, and play a role in shifting the way people think about racism and sexism.
There's no doubt that we’ll start to see Black Panther references on signs at upcoming protests.
The release of Black Panther has helped fuel calls for the release of Black political prisoners in the US, including real-life members of the Black Panther Party who fought for liberation in the 1960s and ’70s. In New York City, activists gathered outside theatres during opening weekend to draw attention to former Panthers still behind bars and call for their release.
Activists are also making connections between the newfound interest in the history of the Black Panthers and an anti-terrorism unit that the FBI created several months ago, which labels activists fighting police brutality “Black identity extremists”.
This unit has a lot of similarities to the domestic counterintelligence program COINTELPRO, which was used to monitor and disrupt the Black Panthers and other leftist groups in the 1970s.
‘Wakanda forever!” is a phrase that everyone who has seen the movie utters. It’s the cry of the Dora Milaje, who will do anything for Wakanda and will defend it till the very end.
Wakandans take pride in the fact that their nation was never colonised, pointing out that colonisation leads to oppression, but so do kings and queens. Wakanda also refused to be imperialistic, because its people never wanted to do to any other country what they saw other countries do to the rest of Africa.
Capitalism drives the great state powers to compete over the division and re-division of the world. Wakandans don’t want to be part of that process.
Black Panther is a great movie that is creating an opening for discussion with a new audience of people interested in talking about racism, colonialism and Black liberation — while also enjoying a really great movie.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]