Leonard Pitts Jr

‘Black Panther’ a watershed in cultural history of African Americans

T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) star in the film ‘Black Panther.’
T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) star in the film ‘Black Panther.’ Marvel Studios

There’s never been anything quite like this before.

Yes, “Black Panther” is easily one of the best superhero movies ever made, but that’s the least important thing it is. The reason it’s on everyone’s lips, the reason people who don’t care about superheroes suddenly care about superheroes, the reason you are reading these words, is that this movie is a moment, a watershed in the cultural history of African-American people.

It’s not that there have never been must-see black movies before, or even black movies that shook the Zeitgeist like a tree. In 1967, African Americans crowded into theaters to watch Sidney Poitier, as Det. Virgil Tibbs, slap a racist white Southern cotton planter who had slapped him first. In 1971, they turned out big to see Richard Roundtree as John Shaft redefine black movie masculinity, strolling through Times Square in a brown leather coat as the wah-wah guitars of that Isaac Hayes theme buzz-sawed behind him.

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Chadwick Boseman in the film, ‘Black Panther.’ Marvel Studios

But no one ever bought out a movie theater to make sure little black kids saw Poitier’s “In The Heat of the Night.” Actress Octavia Spencer is doing just that in Mississippi; Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley and ESPN’s Jemele Hill are doing it in Motown; businessman Rodger Jackson is doing it in Chicago; and other philanthropists, churches, businesses and civic groups are doing it around the country.

Similarly, was there ever a poll in which three out of every four black people declared their intention to see “Shaft”? According to the You Gov Omnibus polling service, 74 percent of African Americans say they will see “Black Panther” at some point, with just over half — 52 percent — saying they’ll see it in a theater.

There are other metrics and illustrations by which to quantify the hold this movie has on the African-American imagination. For instance, it has set a record for IMAX movie presales by a Marvel Studios Film. Not to mention the trending Twitter hashtag, #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe.

But the single most visceral example of how this movie has moved African-American people surely lies in a viral video that appeared online shortly before Christmas. It depicts a group of black guys standing in a movie theater before a coming attractions poster that features the “Panther’s” mostly black cast, including Michael B. Jordan as the villain, Erik Killmonger; Danai Gurira as the military leader, Okoye; Lupita Nyong’o as the spy, Nakia; and towering over them all, Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, King T’Challa of Wakanda.

“So,” says a voice off camera, “we sittin’ here lookin’ at this dope-ass Black Panther poster and the conclusion that we have come to is that this is what white people get to feel like all the time.”

“All the time!” echoes one of his boys, hyping him like Flavor Flav. “All the time!

“Since the beginning of cinema,” says the off-camera voice, “you get to feel empowered like this, and represented.”

One brother is embracing the poster. Flavor Flav is pointing at Boseman’s face. “This?” he asks, incredulously. “This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country, too.”

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From left, Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) in the film ‘Black Panther.’ MATT KENNEDY Marvel Studios

And one can almost hear white conservatives harrumphing as they prepare to pontificate about ungrateful black people and their lack of country love. They will, by design, miss the poignancy in what the man said. And also the point.

That response to a simple action movie speaks to his — to our — alienation from the land of our birth, to the bitter disappointment of finding out that its large ideals are too small to include you.

“I am the darker brother,” wrote Langston Hughes. “They send me to eat in the kitchen. When company comes.”

It speaks to that.

And even T’Challa himself, Chadwick Boseman, a 40-year-old actor who, after embodying James Brown, Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, is no stranger to playing iconic black men, seems a little stunned. As he told an audience a few days ago at a live Twitter Q&A, “You can make movies, but I don’t know what this is …”

There is a tangled history here. The “Black Panther” name has roots deep in African-American history. It was first used in April 1942, when the all-black 761st tank battalion was activated. The battalion chose “Black Panthers” as its unit nickname.

In 1966, voting-rights activists in Lowndes County, Alabama, formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and took as their symbol a crouching black panther. Inspired by the emblem, Oakland activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed an organization to challenge police brutality and other forms of white oppression in October of that same year. They called it the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Meantime, in New York City, Marvel Comics was busily churning out its fables of masked men and women in tights battling human lizards, armored despots and the occasional 28-foot-tall planet eater. Fantastic Four #52, which hit the stands in the summer of 1966, was more of the same — yet completely different.

Writer Stan Lee, likely inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, chose that issue of his flagship comic book to introduce the first major, mainstream black superhero. Written by Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby — the Lennon and McCartney of comics — the character was originally to have been called the Coal Tiger, which would have been unfortunate, given that there are no wild tigers in Africa. At some point, someone must have realized this and thus was born the Black Panther, king of the hidden nation of Wakanda.

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In ‘Black Panther,’ Winston Duke plays M'Baku, who leads the Jabari-Lands. MATT KENNEDY Marvel Studios

Much of that first appearance was spent establishing the fact that Wakanda was not just any old African backwater. Made both fabulously wealthy and technologically advanced by a deposit of the rare, sound- and energy-absorbing metal, vibranium, Wakanda was, as the Fantastic Four would quickly discover, a different kind of jungle. What looked like vines were actually, in that pre-digital era, wires. What looked like flowers were buttons and dials.

“Though the Wakanda tribe lives in the tradition of their forefathers,” says an awed Mr. Fantastic, “they possess modern super scientific wonders we can only marvel at.”

The Black Panther would never become an A-list player in Marvel’s sprawling universe. But he would become a fixture. He would also inevitably become a mirror, a way of looking at black men.

In that first appearance, he was comics’ answer to Poitier — impossibly noble and starchily dignified. By 1970, with Martin Luther King dead and the cities smoldering, he was teaching at an inner-city school in New York and calling himself “a soul brother.”

It wasn’t until around the turn of the century that African-American writers got their first sustained crack at the character. They made the most of it.

Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin wrote tales of geopolitical intrigue and even gave the king a queen, marrying T’Challa to Ororo Munroe, “Storm,” from the X-Men (it didn’t last). Ta-Nehisi Coates, the character’s current writer, has crafted dense, thoughtful epics confronting T’Challa with a restive people challenging — sometimes violently — the whole concept of monarchy.

But it was Christopher Priest whose work in the late ’90s and early aughts reinvented the Panther. In a funny and subversive satire that upended everything that had come before, Priest gave us a T’Challa of sleek, frictionless cool, a master strategist on the chess board of global politics, a man with about a dozen plans, never at a loss for answers.

This, then, is a black cat who has lived many lives — but none like this.

In his big screen debut, the Panther deftly delivers what we demand from our superhero movies. People get punched, people get shot, there is a car chase, back flips and a satisfying climactic battle, most of it playing out in a wondrous Wakanda where African tradition lives side by side with next-generation technology. But there is also a depth and soul here that take you by surprise, an emotional intimacy that lingers long after the credits roll.

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Chadwick Boseman in the film, ‘Black Panther.’ Marvel Studios

Somehow, director Ryan Coogler has managed to capture on film an African Eden, a Wakanda that is not simply a place but a way of being, the remembrance of a time when we were enough for us — a time not simply without racism, but without race. A time when you could simply stand and be.

“This? This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country too!”

If you’ve ever had the experience of being African American in Africa, perhaps you know the feeling, that stirring in your chest when you look around and realize that every face is like yours — the airline pilot, the woman selling palm oil, the man lying in the gutter, the dusty, bare-chested children playing soccer on a dirt street — all of them, you.

For the first time in your life, color is not a determinative thing. It feels like breathing after you’ve been underwater too long, resting after a 20-mile hike.

The memory — and hope — of that feeling is what people are really buying out movie theaters to see. Yes, they say they are doing it because they want black children to understand that they, too, can be superheroes and that they want girls in particular to know that they can be warriors, scientists and queens.

And they mean it. On the other hand, “Panther” is hardly the first black action movie. Nor is it the first to feature black women in positions of authority.

But it is, arguably, the first to awaken the memory — and, again, the hope — of that world where black simply is.

Not a problem, not a reason, not an explanation, nor an argument. Just …

Is.

In that, “The Black Panther” offers a powerful vision that could not be more timely. It is a bracing counterpoint to the brutal racial atavism of the post-Obama era. Several times, the movie speaks to this directly, as citizens of this African utopia debate what, if anything, they owe their brothers and sisters on this side of the globe. But “Black Panther” is perhaps strongest — and most uplifting — in its silences, in the things it feels no need to speak, the things it allows to simply be.

As in a scene where King T’Challa lands one of his futuristic airships by remote control on a playground in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Oakland where some black boys are playing ball, dreaming themselves Kobe or LeBron. Awed, the boys stop their game and go to admire the ship.

But one of them gravitates instead toward the well-dressed black man standing near the fence, quietly watching. “Is this yours?” he asks. T’Challa’s enigmatic gaze softens, though he doesn’t answer. But the boy, his face open in sudden wonder and new possibility, will not be denied.

“Who are you?” he demands.

And the warrior king smiles.

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