Black Panther is making history. The movie hasn’t even been released yet and it’s already breaking records for prerelease ticket sales. Movie ticket agent, Fandango, finds that presale tickets are on target to surpass all first-quarter movie sales in the entire history of their company. Fandango’s managing editor concludes that the film is, “not just a superhero movie, it’s a ground-breaking cultural event.”  It is quite possibly the very first blockbuster film with a predominantly black cast. And it is the first major film with a black superhero in the leading role.
The new film is Marvel’s adaptation of the comic hero, Black Panther. As a part of the Marvel Comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Black Panther is actually T’Challa, King of Wakanda, an advanced African nation that has managed to consistently resist foreign influence and oppression throughout their entire history. Sounds unbelievable, right? Right.
The movie has created a buzz that stems from a desire to see a leading black actor who doesn’t portray a servant, slave, addict, or criminal. Black Pantheris about a wise, gifted and powerful monarch who happens to be black, surrounded by an entire nation of powerful and gifted people who also happen to be black. However, this particular nation is hidden; a long-kept secret. And this is part of the resistance strategy. The existence of such a world is one that resonates for real-life black people because it’s a lot like the one we live in. We are surrounded by kings and queens whose daily ministration goes unheralded and unnoticed by mainstream society, while in the news there is plastered yet another shooting in the “black neighborhood.”
Recently, the significance of the film was illustrated with the #WhatBlackPantherMeanstoMe hashtag. People shared deeply moving, personal reflections about the film’s social and cultural impact. Users described the importance of representation; of seeing positive and complex images of black people on the big screen. Some noted the power of black futurism and the meaning for black people of seeing themselves as inventive and innovative in the future. I heard someone comment recently that black futurism as a genre has never been really been explored in cinema quite possibly because those who make the films “don’t see us in the future.” It is true that too many among the dominant group don’t give careful consideration to people of color in the present—much less the future.
The timing of Black Panther couldn’t be better. The CW Television Network, home of superhero TV shows like The Flash and Arrow, recently released the first TV show about a black superhero with a predominantly black cast. Black Lightning is a DC Comics character whose storyline also involves strong themes about resistance and social justice. The show is growing in popularity primarily because it casts the black community in its most realistic light, as a complex and multifaceted community with villains, heroes, and everything in between.
Black Panther’s timing is of international consequence. It shifts the narrative that has been perpetuated even by the President of the United States, who recently used the phrase “s_ _ _hole countries” to refer to people from Africa and other places that are a part of the African diaspora. He clarified himself saying that he preferred immigrants from countries like Norway. The intimation is obvious; he believes that African and Afro-Caribbean countries are unsophisticated, defiled enclaves, overrun with savages and barbarians undeserving of citizenship in such a civilized society as the United States of America. It’s hard to believe that the person who holds the nation’s highest office could actually harbor such absurd, nationalistic and xenophobic ideas.
But the President isn’t alone. He broadcasts the sentiments of a long line of people. And not only are these ideas discussed behind closed doors, but they are perpetrated on the big screen and have been for many years. In his book, Brainwashed, Tom Burrell explains how denigrating principles have been utilized in mass-media for hundreds of years. He argues that, “though black progress is more visible today than ever before, I maintain that the unwritten, audacious promotion of white superiority and black inferiority was (and still is) the most effective and successful marketing/propaganda campaign in the history of the world.” Director Ryan Coogler and the entire Black Panther cast are setting fire to the black inferiority campaign with master-talent, ticket sales, and an epic inspiring story by and about black people.
Black Panther harkens back to the best of Black History. It reminds us that history began long before chattel slavery. Before there were slave ships and whips ripping open the skin on the backs of resistant slaves, black people were building great civilizations and institutions. The pyramids of Giza, the great temples of Lalibela, the library at Alexandria, the palace of Great Zimbabwe, are just a few of so many Wakandas—we just weren’t taught about them in geography or world history. Nevertheless, one can simply Google Nubia, Carthage, Timbuktu, Mapungubwe, and more, for a crash course in black excellence. That’s our heritage. That’s our history.
Additionally, in the not-so-distant past there were always powerful freedom fighters who resisted the oppressive force of the dominant group. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, Frank McWorter, Robert Smalls, and countless others cast their lots for their own emancipation and for the freedom of African-American people. And also more recently are the scholars and innovators who labored and fought for a more favorable place for Africans in America, like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Carter G. Woodson, George Washington Carver, and Alain Locke. Then there are those who came after them and carried the banner of resistance and freedom for African-Americans; Rosa Parks, Adam Clayton Powell, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Huey P. Newton, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. They are all descendants of Wakanda. They fought for us. They made history.
These heroes studied, invented, wrote, spoke, marched, lobbied, taught, and fought because they believed “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They believed (whether implicitly or explicitly) that power belongs to God and that God had chosen in eternity past to make mankind in the divine image, and that each individual might receive the power and grace necessary to receive God’s absolute best. It is a wonder that so many, for so long, have sought to deny or ignore these truths, and actually attempt to counteract them.
It is an even greater wonder that even among Adventists there remain remnants of a restrictive view that all men, women, or cultures are not created equal. Therefore we stifle some groups and celebrate others. We demonize some worship styles and promote others. We ordain one sex and commission the other. We give lip service to multiculturalism, yet we censor every kind of authentic cultural expression and maintain the least diverse representation in leadership as will be tolerated. We still have racist outbursts on the campuses of our universities. And so in our own denomination we celebrate the legacy of James K. Humphrey, J.L. Moran, Anna Knight, F.L. Peterson, Eva B. Dykes, E.E. Cleveland, Calvin Rock, Charles Bradford, and so many others that have worked within confines of the church to effect change. They too are descendants of Wakanda. They made history.
God is the source of power and formed Adam from the dust of the ground, then granting humans dominion over the earth; over the garden and all of the animals. God promised that man and woman would have authority over the land. It was never part of the divine plan for humans to rule over one another. We were created to have dominion over the earth, not each other. Thus, all men and women are created equal. In several places after the Fall, God promises to grant power to those who believe. There is power over sin, power for a changed life, and power to do the work of God (see John 1:12; Acts 1:8; Eph. 3:20, 6:10; 2 Tim. 1:7). And then it was Jesus (in Revelation 3:21) who promised that those who overcame would be seated on the heavenly throne with God—the seat of ultimate power and authority. It is my opinion that divine power is always for the sake of combating the forces of evil. It’s power over evil, not over people. It’s my personal belief that this is actually the true aim of black power: to combat forces of oppression and injustice.
The more I think of these incessant attempts to censor and silence people of color within and without the church, the more it becomes clear that the spirit of Wakanda lives! We see it in Ryan Coogler, who is only 31 years old although this is his third major motion picture. And in the fact that there’s a new generation of Wakandans who are committed to excellence in life and leadership. The brand-new mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Bottoms, is only 48 and only the second female to hold the office. Michael Tubbs was elected at the age of 26 to become the youngest mayor in the history of Stockton, California. At 38, Melvin Carter is the first black mayor in the history of St. Paul, Minnesota. Justin Fairfax is only 38, but he was recently elected to serve as the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. The entire list is very long.
No matter where you stand on this issue, there is no resisting the resolve and determination of a people who have been oppressed for such a long time. Ryan Coogler, Keisha Bottoms, Michael Tubbs and all the rest still rise with clenched fists pumping in the air and screaming with every bit of black excellence that can be mustered, “#WakandaForever!!!” Resistance is futile. We’re making history.