Black Panther and a Cultural Phenomenon

This past February, Marvel let the cat out of the bag. To be honest, a more specific interpretation is Marvel unleashed a panther from its cage. Directed by Oakland’s own Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale StationCreed), Black Panther didn’t merely flex its muscles at the box office nor did it scratch and claw its way to the top. On the contrary, it was more like a complete obliteration of the competition. Domestically the film grossed just under $700 million. Globally it brought in just over $1.3 billion…with a ‘b’…billion. Not a lot of films are able to stake a claim to that kind of accomplishment. Still, the money and the ticket sales are just side-stories to what Coogler and this film truly achieved. What I saw as a super hero movie turned out to be something much greater to a lot more people.

Truth be told, this film didn’t do a whole lot for me.  I went in expecting super hero fireworks but left feeling unfulfilled.  I felt Michael B. Jordan’s character of Killmonger was much better developed than Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther.  Considering the title character didn’t have a lot of depth, I just found that a little bothersome.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing Boseman did wrong.  Without question, he is one of my favorite actors.  My first exposure to his work was the Jackie Robinson biopic 42.  After that he was portraying the Godfather of Soul in the James Brown biopic Get On Up, which he should have at least been nominated for Best Actor. There was something incredibly heinous in a lack of being recognized for his work in that film, but that’s another story.

So just what was it that didn’t light my fire with this latest addition from Marvel?  Maybe I was just overthinking it.  The movie didn’t win me over, on to the next, right?  It wasn’t that simple for me though.  When I go to the cinema, I don’t go there to watch movies.  I go there to experience them, and there was something inside me I found especially nagging in regard to my lack of connecting with Black Panther.  Across the planet, people were flocking to this film in droves.  It was like this was Star Wars and I was the person that didn’t get why people go nuts over Star Wars.  As a matter of fact, I never understood those who don’t grasp the power of Star Wars.  Now I had become that exact person.  To say Star Wars is just a movie or just a series of movies is so undeniably false.  It has had a gargantuan effect on culture around the world.  When a book or a song or a film has that kind of power, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  Enter Black Panther.

Now I’m not saying Black Panther has had that same effect as Star Wars.  Rather, it has had its own different, yet still resounding effect internationally, which all stems from the cradle of civilization…Africa.  To Africans and those of African descent around the world, this movie was such a massively positive experience, that it can almost be viewed as one of the biggest social rally cries in recent memory.  I know the film was huge.  I know it was successful.  I wanted to know, for lack of a better word, the science behind why it was so grand to so many.  I wasn’t going to find the answers sitting on the couch, so I reached out to a few people who could relate to Black Panther in a way I could not, the often sensitive subject of race.  To get my answers, I approached two people for their takes on the film; one male, one female.  One is a close friend, the other a complete stranger.  Both are African Americans proud of their heritage.

First was Ken Makin, host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast ( soundcloud.com/makinadifference ) who also happens to be a serious comic book enthusiast.

WSB: What were your feelings going into the movie the first time you saw it and what was it like for you after leaving the theater?

Ken: First, it’s important for me to say that I’m a huge fan of the comic book character. My general interest, along with Black Panther’s scene-stealing efforts in Civil War, created such huge expectations for the movie. After I saw the movie, the hype (internally and through the media) was more than justified.

WSB: This was easily an all-star cast in this film from top to bottom with names like Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Chadwick Boseman filling out the roster of actors. How important was it from a cultural standpoint was it that this film got that casting right?

Ken: The casting was exceptional, and not necessarily because of the familiar names such as the ones you mentioned. I think about the performances of Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), and it’s clear that director Ryan Coogler hit the bullseye on casting across the board. When you mention casting from a cultural standpoint, the effect of having an all-Black cast can’t be overstated. It’s a picture that is rarely seen in Hollywood, and certainly added to fan interest, casual or otherwise. This movie made eye-popping amounts of money at the box office, but it wasn’t merely due to the name ‘Marvel’ behind it. Why was this film so important to the African American community in the United States? It began with the all-Black cast. Take that element, and add the positive portrayal of Black royalty in a setting “unfettered by civilization.” From there, the hype surrounding the movie spread like wildfire. It became more than just a movie, it almost became a movement because of the pride people felt when they saw the movie. Folks went in groups. Folks dressed up as the characters and in African garb. There were fundraisers that provided opportunities for the less fortunate to attend the movie. It really brought the best out of folks.

WSB: If there were a sequel, which there most likely will be, are there any other cultural aspects you would want to see in it that the initial film didn’t cover?

Ken: This question is challenging for me because, in terms of the movie, I am satisfied with its presentation from a cultural perspective. I also understand that the African diaspora is more complex than a largely commercial presentation. Instead of focusing on cultural aspects that the film didn’t cover, I would instead challenge individuals and groups to focus on the history of Black people — both in America and abroad.

WSB: Even though Wakanda is fictitious, what kind of precedent do you think this film sets for Africa and its people in film?

Ken: This question requires two different points of context. First, the story of Black people in Africa and Black people in America are different. The movie vaguely touched on this dynamic. Second, it is important to understand that, even within the framework of the cast, we see diversity in terms of Blackness. Danai Gurira’s parents are Zimbabwean. Letitia Wright is Guyanese-British. I don’t think the film sets a precedent as much as it highlights a trend — Black actors who aren’t necessarily African-American on the big screen. As an aside, it is good to see (a perception of) Africa in a way where it isn’t seen as impoverished or war-torn.

.   .   .

Next I approached my friend and fellow cinephile, Lena A.  We trade a lot of banter on a lot of films but this one we were rather far apart on.  It wasn’t because of a like versus dislike of the film, but more so due to that cultural divide.  That’s not to refer to it in a negative sense, but as a case of “that’s not my history, so tell me about yours.”

WSB: You’re an avid movie goer as it is.  Was there anything additional that built your anticipation for Black Panther?

Lena: The selling point for me was the positive, diverse representation of African American and African peoples in a film that not only entertained, but acknowledged and represented some of the everyday struggles within our communities. To have a blockbuster film directed, and starring such a wide array of black people that does not exploit nor only focus on the negatives of the black experience was invigorating and very much needed in a time like today when racial tensions and intolerance seem to be on the up rise.

WSB: We talked in the past about Black Panther that as far as a super hero movie, it was fairly average.  However, from a cultural standpoint, it created a tsunami of African American economic power at the box office.  Why do you think this movie plowed through records that other African American-dominated films did not?

Lena: Not to take away from the power of the black dollar but to put it simply, Marvel.  Black Panther was not the first black super hero on the big screen however, he has been the most successful and I think that has everything to do with the name that is behind the film.  The big budget from Disney combined with the reputation of the Marvel franchise created the perfect situation for this film to be successful. The added bonus that put the cherry on top was that it spoke to black people in a way that other films have not by representing us on the big screen in a way that a lot of us believe is the correct historical representation of our people.  The reputation of Marvel brought in dollars of fans of the genre but the characters and director of the film brought in support of black people.

WSB: It can be argued that there has been a surge in racial tension in the U.S. in recent years, due in part to police shootings among other things.  Without going into details of the incidents, would you say Black Panther provided a moment of solace, pride or healing for the African American community

Lena: Black Panther provided a sense of pride and inspiration by acknowledging what has been felt by many to be our true history. In schools the only stories we are taught about the history of African Americans is that they were slaves and were and continue to be systematically oppressed. We are consistently taught and shown images that support the narrative that Africa is a poor third world country that needed and still needs saving. Both perspectives are very biased, negative, incomplete, and toxic. What was just a film to some was a confirmation and proper representation of the social, economic, class, and educational diversity within our culture that is traditionally ignored in mainstream media.

WSB: Lastly, There do not seem to be a lot of black female heroes on the big screen.  In Black Panther, we see very capable women get things done in the form of T’Challa’s little sister Shuri and Wakanda defender extraordinaire Okoye.  As an African American woman yourself, what did it mean to you to see these women own their roles and dominate as both heroes and strong females?

Lena: This is a tough question because I have always felt black women show their strength in every character that a black woman is cast in. I think in Black Panther, they went beyond just showing the strength of black women but also her ability to be humble and follow the leadership of her male counterparts. Black Panther did justice to showing the complexities that makes a black woman and how she is not defined by her role as just a woman. Black women are not just the sassy baby mama chasing after the black man. Nor is she the sassy educated woman who can’t submit because she is too prideful. She also is not the scorned woman who no longer believes in love and needs saving. These are just a few examples of the traditional characters black women are cast for. Black Panther did a great job of reflecting the complexities that are a true representation of all women, not just African American. We are strong, we are educated, we are empowered, we are warriors always ready and willing to go to battle for our loved ones and the greater good at times. However, we are also nurturing, we are leaders and followers just the same. We exude strength and love all at the same time and in so many different ways that I feel we’re captured very well within the film.

I’d have to be a fool to walk away from Ken and Lena’s dialogue without becoming anymore educated than I was when I started working on this piece.  My initial reaction before I sat down to write this article was that Black Panther is more than just a movie, I just didn’t know why.  Yes it has a director and actors and cameras and lights just like any other movie, but it was not any other movie.  It is a film of strength.  It is a launchpad for pride.  It is a tool of understanding. So, as it turns out, my initial reaction was correct.  Simply stated, Black Panther certainly is more than a movie.  It’s a cultural phenomenon.


Big thanks to Lena, Ken and Russell B. for their time and efforts.


4 Responses to “Black Panther and a Cultural Phenomenon”

  1. Aaron Neuwirth

    Great article! What a terrific way to go above and beyond in exploring why something didn’t connect for you personally, while also providing a voice for those who can articulate just what it is that sat so well with them. You know I was a big fan of the film, but there’s only so far I can go in an initial review to address the social relevance, especially when writing before the film became a massive hit. Having a chance to look at the film from so many angles since then only improves the experience of watching it for me when I consider the additional levels of impact, let alone take into account a further appreciation of just how solid many other aspects of BP are, along with the ones I already admired.

  2. Gregg Senko

    Thanks, Aaron! I appreciate the kudos! Not to sound like a broken record from the article, but this film was definitely more than just a film. There aren’t a lot of movies that come along with this kind of impact, so even though it didn’t make a big impression on me, it was still something I felt needed to be talked about in greater detail than simply my like or dislike of it.

  3. Brandon Peters

    Terrific piece, Gregg! You’ve had some great articles this year.

    In film culture, we need more of this. Instead of trying to convince the world to think like yourself if you didn’t connect with something, turn it around ask yourself why YOU aren’t connecting. People nowadays just seem to want to compound on hate and will only come together to share their distaste which is incredibly unhealthy.

  4. Gregg Senko

    Wow, thanks Brandon! Yes I agree 100% with that in regard to the hate build-up. Social media has been a massive platform for that too. Then there’s one thing to dislike a film and another to issue personal attacks like those against some of those folks connected to Star Wars. There’s a whole other direction I’d like to run with this conversation, but I’ll leave at film and tv here.