Talking About Marvel’s “Black Panther” And “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

The deadliest of the species

So a Brazillian media outlet interviewed me via email about a certain Marvel character and a certain film. Here’s what I wrote:

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Todd Steven Burroughs, 54, writer, comicbook geek, public historian and adjunct Africana Studies professor at Seton Hall and Wayne State universities. He is the author of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

1) In your opinion, what is the importance of continuing the legacy of Black Panther in cinema, as it was one of the rare positive representations in Hollywood of a Black king, seen here at the head of an African nation among the most powerful countries in the world?

I struggle over “importance” being the right word. The comicbook geek and the Africana scholar forever warring inside me go back and forth on it. This is a white corporate product starring characters originally created by white Americans with some later help from African-Americans, and now it’s a film produced by a white conglomerate, one written and directed by African-Americans starring both African-Americans and the children of continental Africans. This is not an authentic, organic African cultural product–which shows our powerlessness to do one ourselves. Remember: America was comfortable having a Black president serve two terms but there is still no Black American that can greenlight a Hollywood film. The great writer Haki Madhubuti has called the first film “dangerous.” And if you are committed to African liberation, how can you not call it that? The first Black Panther is an exciting and powerful movie, one that made me tear up with joy, but it’s also a film whose climax shows a white male CIA agent shooting down African revolutionaries. I have known about T’Challa since I began reading Marvel Comics as a pre-teen, but I have only loved him since I first read, while in grad school in the late 1990s, a groundbreaking, satirical Black Panther comic series written by Christopher Priest, its first Black writer. Reginald Hudlin, its second Black writer, did his best to make T’Challa a decolonized character fighting European imperialism. But what about realdecolonized African heroes and Black/African filmsBlack Panther only shows that the billion-dollar Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe can make popular any kind of story starring anyone, that it can make anybody in the world into a popular superhero, but it is not an advance for Black, African and African Diasporic filmmaking. I’m excited as any fantasy-loving Marvel Zombie about this sequel–I got my ticket for the November 10 Thursday afternoon sneak preview weeks ago–but the African reality always is in the back of my mind. At the same time, I quietly agonize, I do acknowledge what this franchise means: African children–and some adults–around the world get to see themselves as the most powerful people on Earth. I think that’s where any importance really lies. So it’s complicated for me, internally and externally, intellectually and emotionally.

2) How much do you think the success of the original film is due to the ferocity and brilliance with which Chadwick Boseman embraced the role of King? Can a sequel be as successful without him? He was the heart of the movie, in a way, right?

I have in my living room a mounted, framed poster of Chadwick Boseman on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, so I don’t want my next sentence misinterpreted. I don’t think it’s an insult to say that Boseman’s channeling of Nelson Mandela–even using similar speech patterns–made him the most boring character in the film! LOL! In my view, the success of Black Panther was the dramatic balance between T’Challa (Boseman), the amazing Dora Milaje and other female characters (Gurira, Nyong’o, Wright, Bassett) and Killmonger (Jordan). This may sound strange, but as I mourned Boseman I did not worry about the sequel at all because I knew director/screenwriter Ryan Coogler and Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige could and would compensate and recalibrate well. That first teaser trailer–one that caused tears to flow on YouTube, including my own–showed they were still in command of this world they made–Wakandan characters in particular and the MCU as a whole. The film is already on track to make $1 billion worldwide, so all is well. 

3) Since we have now some distance from the first film, do you see any positive impact of Black Panther on the way Hollywood mainstream films portray Black people these days?

Well, here’s what I wrote one year in. I don’t think it’s changed Hollywood at all, with one obvious exception: it’s clear that without Marvel’s Black Panther, there would not exist The Woman King. (Look at the chronology of the greenlighting of that film here.) And I definitely don’t think The Woman King‘s familiar-feeling vibes, non-sophisticated story and Hollywood filmmaking style, along with a wide release date right in front of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is in any way coincidental. As I wrote, The Woman King is Black Panther 1.5. đź™‚

I will be very interested in how indigenous people in the Americas will react to seeing Meso-American people and culture as a major part of the MCU worldwide juggernaut. I think turning Namor, The Sub-Mariner and his people indigenous is a stroke of genius! I’ve loved the Sub-Mariner since seeing him as a pre-teen in very dramatic animated stories on second-run syndicated television in the 1970s (which is the link; here’s info on the original 1966 limited-animation show I saw in ’70s reruns). 

And, an important note: the fact that Wakanda Forever‘s bi-cultural, big-screen clash of the titans is coming at the close of a year that saw the Disney+ streaming emergence of an Egyptian superhero and Desi people getting a deservedly critically-acclaimed drama starring teenage superhero Ms. Marvel, is neither accidental nor incidental. Again, Disney/Marvel is leaving no money on the table. đź™‚

It’s clear that if the great writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is right in that the first Panther was Black people’s Star Wars, Wakanda Forever is positioning to be the trying-to-be-bigger, trying-to-be-even-better sequel, a Black Empire Strikes Back

But here’s what I’m most fascinated with as 2023 approaches: will Angela Bassett, an Academy Award nominee, be nominated and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her anchoring Wakanda Forever and Oscar winner Viola Davis be nominated for and win Best Actress for her film, too? Can Black American women sweep the female Oscar contests for portraying African royalty? As they say in the comics that inspired all this Panthermania, to be continued! 

Four Books I Hope Are Written About Marvel’s Black Panther Between Now and 2022

Attention, writers: three years is a long time to write these books:

  1. We need a serious media studies criticism book on the film phenomenon–how and why it happened, from both popular culture and propaganda-study perspectives, detailing Disney’s very detailed plan for worldwide mind control through eye-candy. The Disney-Sony dustup over Spidey would be an excellent coda.
  2. We need a book about the Africanisms of the film. Here’s where you would start.
  3. We need at least one more book about the history of the character in the comics: the 1988 miniseries, his leadership in and of The Illuminati, The Ultimates, The New Avengers and, in 2018, The Avengers itself have yet to be explored. There is a brand-new ongoing Black Panther comic, just out tomorrow, where T’Challa forms his own SHIELD-like team. (Sadly, the team has a primate on it and Marvel’s answer to Tarzan, Ka-Zar; let’s hope Black Twitter is paying attention. 🙂 ) This is historic because it’s the first time T’Challa has had more than one ongoing comic.
  4. We need a book on the history of African superheroes/mythological heroes, those created by Africans versus those created by non-Africans.

A New Book I’m In About The “Black Panther” Movie

The official media material says:

Black Panther earns three Oscars. Since its inception Marvel Studios’ Black Panther has provoked and stoked a wide range of interest, and now that the blockbuster film is the recipient of three Oscars the film’s acclaim extends beyond the box office.
No, it didn’t get the top prize, but it was a barrier breaker as Ruth Carter was the first black woman to ever win in the Costume Design category; and another first for a black artist when Hannah Beachler took the trophy, which she shared with Set Decorator Jay Hart, in Production Design. Additional spice arrived when Ludwig Goransson earned an Oscar for the Best Score in a Motion Picture.
These awards and other nominations for Black Panther augurs well for populist cinema that is traditionally scorned when it comes to taking home the coveted awards, particularly an Oscar, which is Marvel’s first.
It’s a good bet the honors to Black Panther will not only boost the appreciation for populist cinema, it should also enhance the appeal of a number of products and projects such as Black Panther: A Paradigm Shift or Not? the forthcoming anthology at Third World Press, edited by Haki Madhubuti and Herb Boyd. “All of the celebration and awards for the film is nothing to thumb your nose at and we at Third World Press extend all our good wishes and hope we can do as well with our publication,” said Madhubuti, the press’s publisher and founder.
The anthology, which includes more than forty writers, film critics, scholars, and activists, has a timely appearance and should be able to reap some of the renewed media attention the film has sparked. Among the contributors are Nicole Mitchell Gantt, Jelani Cobb, Brent Staples, Abdul Alkalimat, Bobby Seale, Robyn Spencer, Diane Turner, Greg Tate, Maulana Karenga, Marita Golden, and Molefi Keta Asante, et al.
As may be discerned from the contributors the anthology is a compilation of mixed views and opinions―with both praise and a critique of the film. “The film has aroused a variety of conclusions, a wellspring of differences that we felt compelled to give them a forum,” said Boyd. “Like the film, the views expressed in the book are often very provocative.”

Do You Know The Way To Wakanda? One Year Later, It’s Clear That “Black Panther” Finished The Conversation That “Roots” Started  

This month not only marks the first anniversary of the release of “Black Panther,” a.k.a. The Film That Won’t Go Away. What will be little noted is that this February is also the 40th anniversary of another well-remembered African/African-American moment.

On the small screen in February 1979, James Earl Jones, fresh from his then-uncredited voice-over role as Darth Vader in the first “Star Wars,” was seen in a safari shirt and glasses on every ABC-tuned television in America, stabbing his pen into a pad, shouting the following into the then five-channel television universe: “You old African! I found you! I found you! Kunta Kinte, I found you!”

“Roots: The Next Generations,” the mammoth 1979 sequel to the groundbreaking 1977 original, ends with Haley’s (Jones’s) journey to the Gambia to search for the young ancestor who was captured when, as the Haley family legend goes, he went into the woods to make himself a drum.

The search for Haley’s fantasy-ish Juffure resonated with African-Americans (in fact, it’s partly how we eventually accepted that term for ourselves in the late 1980s), and with millions more who wanted to find out about themselves. It’s the core story, the central idea that, in 2019, spurs those Ancestry.com commercials and has given Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Africana Studies professor, a new career in public television.

Haley’s historical novel and the vision of comicbook legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hold more similarities that one thinks. Aren’t both the imaginary product of 1960s magazine content producers? Isn’t Killmonger just a version of Kunta Kinte who finally makes it back home and reclaims his birthname and birthright? Isn’t the Juffure showed in “Roots: The Next Generations” a low-tech Wakanda of sorts—a (relatively) unspoiled, seemingly un-interrupted Africa?

Although “Roots” was created for television as an American family tale, it nevertheless brought home the central tenets of Black Power and Afrocentrism—that we are an African people. ABC broke through with a depiction of Africa that defied the “Tarzan” movies from the 1930s through the 1950s that were a staple of Saturday afternoon viewing on local television channels. For a people that had recently abandoned “Afro-American” for Black, the contrast was jarring. I was 9-years-old when the first “Roots” miniseries aired, and it shook me to the core. But not completely: I still loved those Tarzan films, watching them for years afterward, but I began to wonder why I couldn’t understand the Africans, and why they kept dying consistently.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

What happened between “Roots” and “Black Panther?” More knowledge. Africana Studies—now in its 50th year, struggling to survive, but back then growing and expanding as a discipline. Sci-Fi-era technology that allows us to see Africa and converse with Africans every day. World travel not being a big deal anymore.  A growing Afro-futurism movement that is including all people of African descent, regardless of geography, gender or gender orientation. So “Panther” came right on time, as a production of visual African/Black nationalism, a visual sense of Black/African victory, to counter the white nationalism of Trump and Brexit.

The very idea that the African Union has set out to create a Wakanda shows that even Africans are searching for the Africa they see in their own minds. Imagination serving its highest role—as inspiration. (I hope and pray that the AU, thus inspired, will turn down requests for the Chinese to build it.)

For better or worse, Black History Month now has an imaginary element. We have merged with Kunta Kinte, and have turbo-charged his drum with Vibranium. Using American mid-20th century fantasy, we have gone in our minds from victims of colonization to superheroes forging our own destiny. In 2019, we have checked our DNA, and know more fact than fiction about ourselves. Of course we are of African descent, we now say, confused how anyone could think otherwise.

Whether “Black Panther” wins any Oscars later this month is much less important than this truth that might double as fact: Ryan Coogler, T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri have killed Tarzan, for real this time.

The First Excerpt From My New Book, “Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee To Ta-Nehisi Coates” (Diasporic Africa Press)……

 

…..can be found here.