Fearless and free: Black Panther movie a defining moment for black America

Carvell Wallace on why the hit movie ‘Black Panther’ is a defining moment for black America.

The Grand Lake Theatre — the kind of old-time cinema with cavernous ceilings and ornate crown mouldings — is one place I take my kids to remind us that we belong to Oakland, California.

Black Panther is currently showing in Irish cinemas.

Whenever there is a film or community event that has meaning for this town, the Grand Lake is where you go to see it. There are local film festivals, indie film festivals, erotic film festivals, congressional town halls, political fundraisers. After Hurricane Katrina, the lobby served as a drop-off for donations.

We run into friends and classmates there. On weekends we meet at the farmers’ market across the street for coffee.

The last momentous community event I experienced at the Grand Lake was a weeknight viewing of Fruitvale Station, the 2013 film directed by the Bay Area native Ryan Coogler.

It was about the real-life police shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, right here in Oakland, where Grant’s killing landed less like a news story and more like the death of a friend or a child.

He had worked at a popular grocery, gone to schools and summer camps with the children of acquaintances.

His death — he was shot by the transit police while handcuffed, unarmed, and face down on a train-station platform, early in the morning of New Year’s Day 2009 — sparked intense grief, outrage, and sustained protest, years before Black Lives Matter took shape as a movement.

Coogler’s telling took us slowly through the minutiae of Grant’s last day alive: We saw his family and child, his struggles at work, his relationship to a gentrifying city, his attempts to make sense of a young life that felt both aimless and daunting.

The moment I remember most took place after the movie was over: A group of us, friends and strangers alike and nearly all black, stood in the cool night under the marquee, crying and holding one another. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know one another. We knew enough.

On a misty morning this January, I found myself standing at that same spot, having gotten out of my car to take a picture of the Grand Lake’s marquee.

The words “Black Panther” were on it, placed dead centre. They were not in normal-size letters; the theatre was using the biggest ones it had.

All the other titles huddled together in another corner of the marquee. A month away from its February 16 opening, Black Panther was, already and by a wide margin, the most important thing happening at the Grand Lake.

Marvel Comics’ Black Panther was originally conceived in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, two Jewish New Yorkers, as a bid to offer black readers a character to identify with.

The titular hero, whose real name is T’Challa, is heir apparent to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation.

The tiny country has, for centuries, been in nearly sole possession of vibranium, an alien element acquired from a fallen meteor. (Vibranium is powerful and nearly indestructible; it’s in the special alloy Captain America’s shield is made of.)

Wakanda’s rulers have wisely kept their homeland and its elemental riches hidden from the world and, in its isolation, the nation has grown wildly powerful and technologically advanced.

Its secret, of course, is inevitably discovered and, as the world’s evil powers plot to extract the resources of yet another African nation, T’Challa’s father is cruelly assassinated, forcing the end of Wakanda’s sequestration.

The young king will be forced to don the virtually indestructible vibranium Black Panther suit and face a duplicitous world on behalf of his people.

This is the subject of Ryan Coogler’s third feature film — after Fruitvale Station and Creed (2015) — and when glimpses of the work first appeared last June, the response was frenzied. The trailer teaser — not even the full trailer — racked up 89m views in 24 hours.

On January 10, 2018, after tickets were made available for presale, the managing editor of US movie site Fandango, Erik Davis, tweeted that the movie’s first 24 hours of advance ticket sales exceeded those of any other movie from the Marvel cinematic universe.

The black internet was, to put it mildly, exploding. Twitter reported that Black Panther was one of the most tweeted-about films of 2017, despite not even opening that year. There were plans for viewing parties, a fundraiser to arrange a private screening for the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem, hashtags like #BlackPantherSoLit and #WelcomeToWakanda.

When the date of the premiere was announced, people began posting pictures of what might be called African-Americana, a kitsch version of an older generation’s pride touchstones — kente cloth du-rags, candy-coloured nine-button suits, King Jaffe Joffer from Coming to America with his lion-hide sash — alongside captions like “This is how I’ma show up to the Black Panther premiere.”

Someone described how they’d feel approaching the box office by posting a video of the Compton rapper Buddy Crip-walking in front of a Moroccan hotel.

Black Panther is steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness. “It’s the first time in a very long time that we’re seeing a film with centred black people, where we have a lot of agency,” says Jamie Broadnax, the founder of Black Girl Nerds, a pop-culture site focused on sci-fi and comic-book fandoms.

These characters, she notes, “are rulers of a kingdom, inventors and creators of advanced technology. We’re not dealing with black pain, and black suffering, and black poverty” — the usual topics of acclaimed movies about the black experience.

In a video posted to Twitter in December, which has since gone viral, three young men are seen fawning over the Black Panther poster at a cinema. One jokingly embraces the poster while another asks, rhetorically: “This is what white people get to feel all the time?”

There is laughter before someone says, as though delivering the punchline to the most painful joke ever told: “I would love this country, too.”

Ryan Coogler saw his first Black Panther comic book as a child, at an Oakland shop called Dr Comics & Mr Games, about a mile from the Grand Lake Theatre.

When I sat down with him earlier this month, at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, I told him about the night I saw Fruitvale Station, and he listened with his head down, slowly nodding. When he looked up at me, he seemed to be blinking back tears of his own.

Coogler played football in high school, and between his fitness and his humble listening poses — leaning forward, elbows propped on knees — he reminds me of what might happen if a mild-mannered athlete accidentally discovered a radioactive movie camera and was gifted with remarkable artistic vision. He’s interested in questions of identity: What does it mean to be a black person or an African person?

“You know, you got to have the race conversation,” he told me, describing how his parents prepared him for the world. “And you can’t have that without having the slavery conversation.

And with the slavery conversation comes a question of, ‘OK, so what about before that?’ And then when you ask that question, they got to tell you about a place that nine times out of 10 they’ve never been before. So you end up hearing about Africa, but it’s a skewed version of it. It’s not a tactile version.”

Around the time he was wrapping Creed, Coogler made his first journey to the continent, visiting Kenya, South Africa, and the Kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny nation in the centre of the South African landmass.

Tucked high amid rough mountains, Lesotho was spared much of the colonisation of its neighbours. Coogler based much of his concept of Wakanda on it.

When we spoke of Africa and black Americans’ attempts to reconnect with what we’re told is our lost home, I admitted I sometimes wondered if we could ever fully be part of what was left behind. He dipped his head, fell briefly quiet and then looked back at me with a solemn expression.

“I think we can,” he said. “It’s no question. It’s almost as if we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we can’t have that connection.”

Black Panther is a Hollywood movie, and Wakanda is a fictional nation. But coming when they do, from a director like Coogler, they must also function as a place for multiple generations of black Americans to store some of our most deeply held aspirations.

We have for centuries sought to either find or create a promised land where we would be untroubled by the criminal horrors of our American existence.

From Paul Cuffee’s attempts in 1811 to repatriate blacks to Sierra Leone and Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa Black Star shipping line of the 1910s and ’20s, to the Afrocentric movements of the 1960s and ’70s, black people have populated the Africa of our imagination with our most yearning attempts at self-realisation.

Never mind that most of us had never been to Africa. The point was not verisimilitude or a precise accounting of Africa’s reality. It was the envisioning of a free self.

Nina Simone once described freedom as the absence of fear, and as with all humans, the attempt of black Americans to picture a homeland, whether real or mythical, was an attempt to picture a place where there was no fear.

This is why it doesn’t matter that Wakanda was an idea from a comic book, created by two Jewish artists. No one knows colonisation better than the colonised, and black folks wasted no time in recolonising Wakanda.

No genocide or takeover of land was required. Wakanda is ours now. We do with it as we please.

The artistic movement called Afrofuturism, a decidedly black creation, is meant to go far beyond the limitations of the white imagination. It isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space.

It is the idea that we will have won the future. There exists, somewhere within us, an image in which we are whole, in which we are home.

Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, an attempt to imagine what that home would be. Black Panther cannot help being part of this.

“Wakanda itself is a dream state,” says director Ava DuVernay, “a place that’s been in the hearts and minds and spirits of black people since we were brought here in chains.”

She and Coogler have spent the past few months working across the hall from each other in the same editing facility, with him tending to Black Panther and her to her much-anticipated film of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

At the heart of Wakanda, she suggests, lie some of our most excruciating existential questions: “What if they didn’t come?” she asked me.

“And what if they didn’t take us? What would that have been?”

Afrofuturism, from its earliest iterations, has been an attempt to imagine an answer to these questions.

The movement spans from free-jazz thinkers like Sun Ra, who wrote of an African past filled with alien technology and extraterrestrial beings, to the art of Krista Franklin and Ytasha Womack, to the writers Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Derrick Bell, to the music of Jamila Woods and Janelle Monáe.

Their work, says John I Jennings — a media and cultural studies professor at the University of California, and co-author of Black Comix Returns — is a way of upending the system, “because it jumps past the victory. Afrofuturism is like, ‘We already won’.

Here in Oakland, I am doing what it seems every other black person in the country is doing: assembling my delegation to Wakanda. We bought tickets for the opening as soon as they were available — the first time in my life I’ve done that.

Our contingent is made up of my 12-year-old daughter and her friend; my 14-year-old son and his friend; one of my oldest confidants, dating back to adolescence; and two of my closest current friends. Not everyone knows everyone else.

But we all know enough. Our group will be eight black people strong.

This is all part of a tradition of unrestrained celebration and joy that we have come to rely on for our spiritual survival. We know that there is no end to the reminders that our lives, our hearts, our personhoods are expendable.

Yes, many nonblack people will say differently; they will declare their love for us, they will post Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela quotes one or two days a year.

But the actions of our country and its collective society, and our experiences within it, speak unquestionably to the opposite.

Love for black people isn’t just saying Oscar Grant should not be dead. Love for black people is Oscar Grant not being dead in the first place.

We hold one another as a family because we must be a family in order to survive. Our individual successes and failures belong, in a perfectly real sense, to all of us.

That can be for good or ill. But when it is good, it is very good. It is sunlight and gold on vast African mountains, it is the shining splendor of the Wakandan warriors poised and ready to fight, it is a collective soul as timeless and indestructible as vibranium. And with this love we seek to make the future ours, by making the present ours.

We seek to make a place where we be long.

This has been adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Carvell Wallace is a writer and podcaster based in Oakland.

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