On Feb. 16, the biggest and blackest movie extravaganza that we have seen since the turn of ’00 will finally be hitting theaters. It’s funny really. The premiere of Black Panther is so close and yet so far away. But that’s not stopping all of the buzz that’s abounding. Everywhere you look, you can see the buzz on our good king, T’Challa; news on your local GoFundMe that’s raising money to get the babies (our future) into theaters; news predicting how much Black Panther is gonna earn when it Crip-walks on the box office (Full disclosure? These outlets are lowballing it. I got $5 on at least a $150 million opening); new clips showcasing how fan-fucking-tastic this movie is gonna be.
The buzz is real. And it’s everywhere. And frankly? It’s warranted. Not just because this is the blackest movie we’ve seen in a while but because this movie is literally revolving around the concept of a black superhero.
To the uninitiated and the ignorant, that may not seem like a big deal, but it is. And here’s why:
Blackness itself is complex. But blackness armed with superpowers? Well, that’s uber complex.
There are many politics to being black, and those politics get seemingly more complex when supernatural forces and powers are involved, be they fictional or otherwise. This is especially the case for Black Panther … who just so happens to share his name with the political party. And you know, initially, Marvel was not fond of that conflation, but here’s why I say concern was misguided:
1. Black Panther was made more badass (read: revolutionary) for letting the conflation stand.
In the beginning—that is July 1966—there was God. And God said, “Let there be Black Panther!!!” And I wager that it was probably in Djimon Hounsou’s voice followed by some talking drums and thunder and lightning. But on a serious note, Black Panther was birthed on the comic book pages that fateful July by comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Fantastic Four #52 … and the Black Panther Party soon followed, establishing itself a mere three months later in October 1966.
Even though Black Panther the character preceded the political party, Marvel, like any corporation in this white man’s world, was initially hot that people were confusing the two and counting them as one and the same. Marvel predictably wanted this rectified … and that rectification came in the form of an unceremonious name change. And what was his name change, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between?
Well. none other than “Black Leopard.”
Indeed. In Fantastic Four #119, Black Panther was reintroduced as Black Leopard. And, predictably, since it was such a stark change, even the characters in that particular comic had questions about it (specifically the Thing). In response, BP simply stated that while he didn’t hate the political group and what it was doing, he could not afford to be conflated with them since the Black Panther “is a law onto himself.’”
Cue an eye-roll with the power of a thousand Nigerian suns.
To the surprise of no one, sans Marvel, the name change did not go over well. Black readers had issues with it for obvious reasons (which I will expound upon) and Marvel’s largest majority demographic—college-age white readers (who encompassed many of those who were part of the counterculture movement and who supported the Black Panthers as a result) found the name change to be wack, unnecessary and generally not as snazzy as the original.
Stan Lee later reflected in Alter Ego in August 2011 (“Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Interview!” by Roy Thomas) that “the readers nor the creators cared for the new name.” And as a result, the name change lasted less than a year. For which, I am actually grateful because I’d argue that not only was changing his name to Black Leopard truly silly, but because Black Panther was made more relevant and meaningful by the conflation with the Black Panther Party. I say this because the two things are not as different as Marvel wanted them to be.
The Black Panther Party has always been about the self-determination of black people, here and abroad. And armed with the tenets of “Black Power” (that is the belief in racial dignity, self-determination, self-reliance; economic and political freedom from white authority; and the focus on and rediscovery of the cultural heritage of black people [i.e. black pride]), the group has always boldly stood against imperialism, aimed to do away with systematic racism, and wanted to eradicate the colonialist and capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies.
Concepts like these are not alien to Black Panther the character. These are the same principles that he—and the Black Panthers before him— fought to maintain and uphold for the success and survival of the people of Wakanda. This much is quite certain, especially via his continuous feud with the treacherous and opportunistic Ulysses Klaw(an apt stand-in for modern and historical European powers), who really just wants to squander the beauty of Wakanda and exploit it. In fact, the only stark difference here between T’Challa and the Black Panther Party is the fact that he is fictional.
But even in that fictionalization, that incredible link to blackness and the commitment to protecting it speaks volumes as to why the conflation is not misplaced … and why the importance and complexities of black superheroes should not be downplayed.
Which brings me to my final point:
2. By virtue of being black, characters like Black Panther are destined to be “political.”
However silly that long-winded-ass Black Leopard story was, my point of telling it was to show that even when creatives—black, nonblack or otherwise—seek to dance around topics that may arise based on a hero’s blackness (think Brian Michael Bendis and how he routinely downplayed blackness and Latinidad when it came to Miles Morales), their superpowers and the intersection thereof, they will ultimately fail. Mainly because, even if you try not to acknowledge it, a black superhero carries loads of implications with him or her.
Superheroes themselves, in the American context, carry loads of meanings, interpretations, symbolism and extended metaphors. Hell, most of them can be deconstructed and connected to some well-known, Judeo-Christian biblical figure (i.e., Superman and Moses … even though people think he’s a Messiah stand-in). And it is these complex aspects that give them their mythological appeal and position them as part escapism and part social commentary.
Once you add race, gender, sexuality, disability and whatnot to the mix, the ante gets upped. Suddenly, especially where blackness is concerned, you’re getting complex and powerful social commentary in these characters, these black people, that hold real-world value, as well as the means—via superpowers—to right the wrongs of our reality that need to be righted. Characters who do experience the injustices of our reality like police brutality and systematic oppression, but have the means—quite physically—to fight back.
You get heroes like the bulletproof Luke Cage. Or the unconquerable African king known as Black Panther. Or the people-freeing champion and weather goddess known as Storm.
And, sure, I will acknowledge that this does carry some burdens with it.
It can be tiring to have a black character that is forever trying to contend with the important political and historical connotations of what it means to be both superpowered and black and residing in America at the same time.
And it can be tiring having to be a black character who is unofficially charged with the task of attempting to represent blackness in its entirety—in the hero context and in pop culture at-large.
Because sometimes? You just wanna be a black hero who punches and kicks a lot of shit without having to deal with all of that. And sometimes, you just wanna be black and not have to deal with all of that. And sometimes … you don’t want to be political. You just merely want to exist.
… That’s wishful. And it’s a fair wish.
But, the reality is that our very existence—and its continuation—is the premier middle finger to a world that has sought to crush and eradicate us on more than one occasion. And it is this undefeated spirit that bleeds into our work and livelihood (fictional or otherwise), even if we don’t want it to or expect it to.
And that, for better or worse, is political and revolutionary as fuck.