Calling Black Panther a popular movie would be an understatement. The movie has been released to massive success, quickly becoming the number one movie in America and breaking box office records. More importantly, it has become a cultural phenomenon. Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and many more, is Marvel’s first movie with a predominantly black cast.
What does Black Panther mean in a larger cultural context? This past Thursday, students and faculty alike gathered in Ives Concert Hall to find out at a panel titled “Afrofuturism, Black Panther, and The Black Panthers.” The panel was the latest in the department’s Faculty Lecture series, as well as part of Western’s ongoing events celebrating Black Heritage Month.
The panel was introduced by Dr. Donald Gagnon, chair of the English department. He was inspired to create the panel when he noticed visual similarities between official cast portraits from the film and West African art of orisha, or deities, from the Nigerian Yoruba peoples. “Someone in Hollywood knows what’s going on and what the politics and aesthetics of Black Panther are,” said Gagnon. This connection inspired the creation of a panel about how Black Panther explores Afrofuturism.
Steven Fullwood, a photographer, writer, and former curator at the Shomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, introduced himself and the panelists. Each panelist spoke about different aspects of history related to the cultural significance of Black Panther.
Lynne D. Johnson, a professor at SUNY Empire State College, and a self-prescribed “black nerd” (or “blerd,” for short), gave an introduction to Afrofuturism and spoke about her own connections to the movement. Born and raised in the Bronx, Johnson grew up around the beginnings of hip-hop. She was fascinated by the way artists used music as “a way out of no way” and transformed experiences with gangs and violence into “a culture of peace and positivity.” Years later, Johnson joined a listserv, “New York Online,” where black artists made music, created art, and wrote sci-fi stories. Johnson later realized that, though she had been unaware of it at the time, the group had been a community centered around the ideas of Afrofuturism.
Johnson explained how, in 1994, “Afrofuturism” was first coined by Mark Dery. Dery drew parallels between themes found in sci-fi, such as finding new worlds and alien abduction, and the experiences of those whose ancestors were brought to America via the transatlantic slave trade. And though Dery coined the phrase, artists and writers had already been exploring these themes long before 1994. At its core, the idea of Afrofuturism is to imagine the future while looking at the past for inspiration.
Johnson pointed to many examples of Afrofuturism in art and music, ranging from classics like Sun Ra’s 1974 film and soundtrack Space is the Place, to newer artists like Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé and Jaden Smith who continue the movement today in their work.
Next, Dr. Gagnon spoke about Octavia Butler, an African-American author whose novels are considered classics in the genre of Afrofuturist science fiction. Butler was once quoted as saying that she was attracted to sci-fi because “it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.” Butler’s most famous work, her 1979 novel Kindred, tells the story of an African-American woman who time travels between the modern day and a slave plantation where she meets her ancestors. Gagnon related Butler’s legacy to the pantheon of powerful black female characters featured in Black Panther. “Thanks to Butler…resistance transcends race, sex, sexuality,” said Gagnon. “We are all welcome to the future, and welcome in the future.”
William H. Foster, a professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College, then shared his knowledge of the comic book series that Black Panther is based on. Foster gave a brief history on black people in comics–as a child, he was frustrated that he could not find “images of people who looked like [him].” In early comics, the only black characters were ones based on racial stereotypes. It wasn’t until 1965 that Lobo became the first series of comic books starring an African-American character. Later, in 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther, the first black superhero. Foster also noted the importance of Black Panther’s home, Wakanda, being a portrayal of a futuristic and technologically advanced Africa.
Lastly, Dr. Demetrius Eudell, a professor of History at Wesleyan University, spoke about the Black Panther Party, the political party founded in 1966–the same year, coincidentally, that Black Panther was created. Dr. Eudell described the Black Panthers as a “new way of framing the quest for black liberation,” because of the way their beliefs went against traditional American ideals of democracy and Christianity. “The Black Panthers, in a sense, represent a rupture with [those ideas] because they are going to focus…on class, nationalism, and race as a world systemic movement,” said Dr. Eudell. “[The Black Panthers] saw a direct correlation between representation in the system of knowledge and the social reality.” Dr. Eudell related this connection to Black Panther’s film adaptation. “The origin of humanity is in visuality, because images do things,” said Dr. Eudell.
After the panel, there was a Q & A session where the discussion of black culture, history, and Black Panther continued. A student asked the panelists how we, as consumers of culture, can begin to change the dichotomy and see more diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Dr. Gagnon answered simply: “Go see Black Panther!” The panelists agreed that the movie’s success has broken the age-old stereotype that films with black characters don’t sell well. And while issues of racism and underrepresentation in popular media still persist, Black Panther is a step toward change. “Black Panther may not be the answer, but it will start the conversation to get there,” said Gagnon.