I’m usually not a Marvel fan. But on President’s Day weekend, I saw the crowds circling around theaters. I read about the box office records broken. I heard from my friends of color that they were on their second or third showings. I wondered what was this Black Panther film all about? So, I went.
When the credits rolled, I looked at the person sitting next to me and said: “Wow.” Just wow. There were no words beyond that to speak of the story, the humor, the sound effects, and the breathlessly beautiful landscapes. This week, a New York Times article asked: “Is ‘Black Panther’ a ‘Defining Moment’ for the United States — and Particularly for Black America?”
I believe it is.
Black Panther, a mainstream Hollywood movie, has an almost all-black cast — a watershed moment in film history we should be ashamed is happening only in 2018. But there’s so much more to its legacy than this.
Black Panther speaks into the heart of white America while we’re comfortably eating our popcorn and M&Ms.
It’s a wake-up call. For, Black Panther tells a story we rarely hear from our white privileged lens. Black Panther helps us understand that Africa is more than the images we’ve conjured of it in our minds. Black Panther takes us to the mirror of the legacy of brutal colonization and its slavery.
If you haven’t seen it yet, the story of Black Panther is set in fictional place called Wakanda within the continent of Africa. It’s a place hard to find on a map, a place untouched by white leadership. And throughout the film, you learn this:
To be a citizen of Wakanda means you value scientific innovation as the heart of your identity.
To be a citizen of Wakanda means black does not equal poor. Or lazy. Or less than.
To be a citizen of Wakanda means tribal ways keeps powers in check guided by elder wisdom.
Simply: Black Panther destroys all cultural stereotypes of what it means to be black, and a resident of the continent of Africa.
This week the Washington Post offered this commentary on the cultural movement of Wakanda saying: “Black Panther delivers a pointed message of inclusion, a call to build ‘bridges’ — not ‘walls’ — to move beyond a past of violence and injustice.”
Yet, this is so often not our viewpoint of Africa, my white friends — even you, my fellow white churched friends.
We name Africa a country instead of the continent that it is.
We send our young adults on mission trips to with the purpose of saving the Africans (never mind some of the most Christian centric nations are in the continent so there’s a lot we could learn from them).
We don’t educate ourselves on the fact that many citizens of the continent of Africa are professionals with college degrees. They wear suits. They use washing machines in their homes like we do. It’s not all huts and starvation.
As part of the humanitarian organizations I’ve served and as part of the one I now lead, I have traveled and continue to travel to East Africa at least once a year. Africa is a place where I’ve walked, laughed, and cried. I’ve seen with my very eyes places that are as breathtaking as scenes of Wakanda. I’ve worked alongside people as wise as Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Nakia. And I’ve eaten meals with people as funny as Letitia Wright’s character, Shuri. I’ve danced alongside women as fierce as Wakanda’s army.
Sure, Black Panther is a fantasy film about action heroes, but it’s not so far from real life either. Citizens of the continent of Africa are strong. They are hardworking. They are dreaming big about their future and would like us to see them that way.
I’m thankful Black Panther is having the type of commercial success that such a beautiful film deserves. I’m thankful for all the ways Black Panther is empowering black youth as they see a superhero in their skin tone, just as Michelle Obama recently tweeted. But I also think it needs to do the same for us, my white friends. It’s a movie that can help us sit back, be quiet, watch and learn.
We need to dream of Wakanda, too.