It was the Monday after Black Panther’s global premiere and, everywhere, everything was peaceful and still. The sun shone, bright and benevolent, and the wind blew, gently and softly; the crisp air was cleaned of its pollutants, and not one turtle choked on a stray piece of plastic out in the bluest of blue oceans. The rainforests breathed a sigh of relief and the trees stretched heavenward, and down below, in the deep bosom of the earth, the buried treasures of millennia remained locked away, saved for a distant future.
On the land itself, not one gunshot was heard, no explosion sounded. Consent was the new currency, and equality became the norm of life. TB, malaria, Crocs, Uggs, and kitten heels became mythical scourges of an unfortunate past, told to children who refused to believe that there was a time when such things were fatal and à la mode. The scars of history faded with time, the present never seemed fresher, and the future was in tangible reach.
Black and white lived in harmony forever and ever.
And then the credits finished rolling. The last cryptic post-credit scene played out, and the cinema lights came on. I trudged to the cinema exit slowly and sullenly as the cleaning staff started shuffling between the aisles, scooping up bits of spilled popcorn, empty chocolate wrappers, and abandoned soda cans. Saturday rolled into Sunday, and Sunday rolled into this Monday where, sadly and painfully, black and white do not live in harmony; they are locked in an ouroboros cycle of discrimination, dispossession, dehumanisation, denial, and death.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
Wakanda is not forever. Wakanda was a weekend thing.
I think, as a black person, the very worst part of leaving the cool, embracing darkness of the cinema after watching 135 minutes of Black Panther—with its powerful black cast; its slick, flowing visual effects; the kaleidoscopic costume designs pulled from an eclectic mix of African cultures; inside black jokes; and one of the most profound, socially relevant story lines ever seen in a superhero film—was walking back into the foyer, blinking at the harsh electric lights, taking the escalator down to the mall’s main atrium, and realising I was smack-fucking-bang back in the real world.
Reality wastes no time in letting the black viewer know that Wakanda, with all of its technological marvels (hovercrafts, magnetically levitating trains, and silent “sneakers”); with all of its fresh-faced representation (Kenyan (Nyong’o), Zimbabwean (Gurira), South African (Kani), West Indian (Duke), Ivorian (Bankolé), Ghanaian (Sapani), Ugandan (Kaluuya), and, American actors line its stellar casts, their various citizenships—in some way tied to the African narrative via diaspora or local nativity—proving to be important to the film’s storytelling credentials as well as its international market appeal); and its Afro-futurist architecture emblazoned with decorative murals, is nothing but a hopeful and imaginative construction incapable of withstanding the onslaught of reality beyond its two-hour-and-a-bit existence on the big screen.
It only takes that one slur outside the cinema—“But why must these people dress up or make such a noise after the film?”—to make you want to crawl back to the cinema seat and block out the real world again.
And what a world it would be.
Wakanda, an isolated near-utopia populated by black Africans who have never been enslaved, never been conquered; who are as mystic as they are scientifically advanced, as rooted in their ancestry as they are free to take to the skies. Black Africans who have never had to deal with colonialism and its consequent social, political, and economic fallout. Black Africans who are adept at weaving kente cloth as they are at making vibranium suits using nanotechnology. Black Africans who are capable of making Tony Stark’s fortune look like small change and his tools look cumbersome and obsolete. Black Africans who can make Captain America look like a two-bit puncher in the ring with the Greatest Of All Time. Black Africans who walk tall and straight; who have never known the pervasive fear of the police; who have never been subjected to the cruelties of passport and immigration control; who have never encountered the second-rate service in restaurants, bars, or shops which often follows nonwhite people. Black Africans who can be artists and musicians, generals, and chief technology officers in the same breath without having to choose careers according to gender lines or glass ceilings. Black Africans who, in short, have been able to carve out their own destiny by building their secret society on the riches of a scarce and valuable metal.
Wakanda—Timbuktu beyond Timbuktu—an entire world beneath our feet, an African paradise on a continent which resembles everything but.
It is too good to be true, and the crash that follows the Wakandan high when you turn to confront the pale speaker of the annoying utterance is too common and exhausting.
“Did you ever ask the Star Wars fans why they camped out in front of the cinema days before the films premiered or why they dress up in full regalia when they went to watch them?”
“Ja, no, but it’s not the same thing.”
“Oh, really? What’s different?”
“It’s just different, that’s all.”
Lord, Bast, Holy Celestial Teacup, take me back to Wakanda. Please and thank you.
The post-Black Panther awaits everyone, and on this Monday I find myself strangely anxious about it.
Black directors, producers, actors, and writers who strive to put nuanced stories out into the global conscience will still face the same hurdles they did before, even though Ryan Coogler has shown that a sensitive, diversely cast film will still rake in the capitalist green. The people with money who have the power to determine what makes it to the screen and what does not, and, therefore, the ideas and values which are transmitted to society will not follow Marvel’s lead—they will choose the easy, white way out. There are some who will question the risk and under-weigh it against the potential reward, outline Black Panther as the outlier. It is a myopic argument, an anti-storytelling stance which limits the kinds of films which can be made. After all, every storyteller wants their tale to be the exception to the rule, not the standard run-of-the-mill fare that plays it safe. Black creative talent will still be questioned at each turn, despite the fact that Coogler, he of Fruitvale Station breakout acclaim and Creed fame, has managed to make a cultural phenomenon on just his third try.
What I know of talent is that it rarely exists in isolation. Where there is one Coogler, there will be two, and three, and four. There will be more. These others will find doors closed, windows of opportunity shut, and Black Panther will become that outlier.
Black and white viewers who desperately need to confront stereotypical narratives about each other will still be subjected to the same stale and facile stories which fear confrontation, stories which might apportion guilt, and, in turn, rob these audiences of vital discussions about culture, race, privilege, and power.
Most importantly, the average kid who purchases a movie ticket and, for the first time, sees people like him or her—with skin tones ranging from light to dark, hair as curly and as comb-defying as their own, an accent that frolics with consonants or mutates nouns and verbs just like theirs on a cinema screen, not doing crack, not being a prostituting, not robbing people, not being the Third Girl From The Left or Janitor #2 or just another nigger to move the plot forward (we see you Quentin Tarantino!)—will have to go back to consuming the same image and psyche-destroying drivel.
—But you had Blade though.
—Nobody wants to be Blade, fam.
—What about Spawn?
—You want black children to grow up to become mercenaries, die, and go to Hell before they encounter their humanity?
—Okay, okay. Blankman?
—You’re drunk. Go home.
This is not the first time that black superheroes have had creative autonomy. The comic book world has always been three or four decades ahead of Hollywood with its values and imagination. Minority and female characters have been turning pages in comic books way before the first Hollywood executive encountered a small word called “diversity.” But comic books, like most literature, remain niche and expensive for the communities most in need of them. For Black Panther to be this accessible to minority audiences, to be rendered in such brilliant and entertaining style, to be this successful, is almost beyond imagination. And this is 2018—it took all this time for it to happen. The recentness of black achievements in numerous professional domains is never to be underscored. Things that white people have taken for granted, like watching films in which their ideas, values, and identities are given free reign to express themselves have been around for years. For black people, such a halcyon time for expression is yet to truly arrive. The perfect storm of boardroom decisions, market demand, and storytelling chops needed to make Black Panther happen might not happen soon enough to cement minority representation as a new viable bottom line for film studios. And that will justify Black Panther’s status as that outlier minority tale capable of popular consumption.
That is why I think this global kumbaya moment for black people will be short-lived. It will not last beyond next week, no matter how many Wakandan handshakes and salutes we give each other. In a matter of weeks, normal transmission will resume. T’Challa is not coming for us—there is no Killmonger militant enough to go after the land and what minorities are owed. There will be no Dora Milaje for battered, broken, and assaulted women. Sillicon Valley will not produce any Shuris. These are not the reasons why Black Panther was made, of course, but the film had so much sauce it was almost impossible for me to overcome the general sense of goodwill that seeped deep into my being watching Black Panther single-handedly shame all that had come before and provide a tantalising morsel for what could come hereafter.
My pessimism is not without reason. I feel like this Black Panther moment has been lived before.
Thomas Sankara was a Black Panther. He was killed. Martin Luther King Jr was a Black Panther. He was killed. Malcolm X was a Black Panther. He was killed. Steve Bantu Biko was a Black Panther. He was killed. Muhammad Ali was a Black Panther. They tried to send him to Vietnam where he would most likely die. He refused. So they stripped him of his livelihood. I almost feel like Colin Kaepernick should have known better. Almost. James Baldwin was a Black Panther, one of the most eloquent to have ever lived. He left the US in search of Wakanda. He never found it. Nelson Mandela was a Black Panther. They locked him up for a stretch and a bit. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, DeRay Mackesson, and Toni Morrison are Black Panthers—their nuanced ideas about race and power are swept aside, often without engagement, rarely with equally matched erudition or insight.
Shit, Haiti, was full of Black Panthers. Look what the world did to them.
This is not the first time we have had Black Panthers, you see. They have always been there; they have always been feared. With good reason too. They represent a threat to the status quo. And history has shown how such threats are dealt with.
T’Challa and his magical kingdom are a moment in the sun. When the sunset comes it is going to suck.
Wakanda is not forever. Wakanda was a weekend thing.
What saddens me is that it does not have to be.
Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station; Creed)
Chadwick Boseman (42; Message From The King)
Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station; Creed)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave; Queen Of Katwe)
Martin Freeman (The Hobbit trilogy)
Danai Gurira (All Eyez On Me)
Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out; Sicario)
Andy Serkis (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy)
Forest Whitaker (Rogue One; The Last King Of Scotland)
Run time: 2 hours 15 mins.