Warning: This piece contains spoilers.
I didn’t like “Black Panther” at first. In fact, the first time I watched the movie, I left the theater pissed off and confused about my place in the world. But I soon came to realize (after three more viewings) that my discomfort was actually the whole point of the movie.
In the hype leading up to the premiere, I was promised a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon and I wasn’t entirely disappointed. I laughed at all the quippy one-liners. I lusted after Michael B(ae) Jordan and Chadwick “I Can Play Any Historical Figure” Boseman. I stanned for Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and newcomer Letitia Wright. I danced in my seat to the Afrobeat. I gawked at the lush sets and beautiful costumes. And I marveled at the glorious fictional nation of Wakanda.
I actually went to sleep that night and dreamed of Wakanda, a utopia filled with natural beauty and technological advancements. I imagined myself as a warrior flying around in hover planes while rocking Kimoyo beads and all the other awesome tech from the movie while just being black and free.
But when I woke up, my excitement was extinguished by a sense of dread and disappointment. I know it’s not a real place, but if Wakanda were real, would its people actually let my black ass in? According to every Wakandan in this movie, not likely.
Wakanda was meant to be a place for us, by us.
The film constantly drove home the point that Wakanda is for Wakandans only. Anyone trying to get in was a colonizer, seeking only to rob Wakanda of its riches. Or they were an outsider, bringing their own problems into the utopia. And this included people who shared their same skin tone.
That narrative of exclusion was painfully familiar to this black girl. To be a black American is to know that you’re descended from people who were stripped of their culture. To know that you’re forever separated from your origins. People will ask you where you’re from ― no, where are you really from? ― and you aren’t able to answer.
I went into “Black Panther” seeking refuge from that awkwardness and a piece of shared black American and African culture to hold on to. Instead, I found myself having to face the sometimes harsh reality that there is a division within our diaspora that’s not going to easily heal.
The only black American main character in the film was Erik Killmonger (portrayed by Jordan), who was flawed, yes, and understandably angry. But beyond being a depiction of black liberation movements and an embodiment of black rage, Killmonger also represented what it’s like to be a black American in search of a homeland. His portrayal as a bloodthirsty, aggressive black American man didn’t bother me nearly as much as how the nation of Wakanda received him.
Every time a Wakandan referred to Killmonger in the film, he was called an “outsider.” Even though he proved he was of Wakandan blood, he still wasn’t one of them. Killmonger grew up hearing stories about a home he’d never been to. He had knowledge of Wakanda’s wealth and culture but he had no access to it himself. While T’Challa was able to visit a lush, African landscape surrounded by his ancestors, Killmonger’s trip to his own ancestral plane led him back to an apartment complex, where he was mostly alone.
The main representation of black Americans in the film had no real roots and was portrayed as sneaky, violent, dangerous and confused. He blamed his lack of prosperity on racism in America and was filled with resentment and disrespect for his elders and tradition. He was broken. He was lost.
There are actual stereotypes throughout the diaspora that black Americans are, in fact, lost ― without a home or a sense of tradition and culture. And, like Wakandans, some Africans distance themselves from us because of this stereotype, choosing to ignore our familial connection just like King T’Chaka did with a young Erik.
Black Americans have their own harmful, xenophobic stereotypes of Africans. The “African booty scratcher” insult was hurled at too many African kids, and a lot of Americans hold a belief that most African countries are dangerous, primitive places that look like something straight out of “The Lion King.” Even the president of the United States implied that Africa is filled with “shithole” countries. We’ve reached an awkward and confusing division between Africans and black Americans, wherein black people in search of connection are accused of appropriating African culture and Africans face xenophobia from their brown-skinned counterparts.
But Wakanda was supposed to change all of that. Wakanda was meant to be a place for us, by us. An Afrofuture where blacks could make a home away from the racism of America and reclaim our roots. But to me, “Black Panther” merely reiterated the uncomfortable point that we don’t really belong to Wakanda. We don’t belong anywhere.
Wakanda is a real future for us to strive toward where everyone has a place to call home.
Then who does hold the keys to Wakanda? And for that matter, who holds the keys to African culture?
Boseman, the star of the film and a black man from South Carolina, shared his cultural experience in a recent interview on “The Breakfast Club” morning show, saying, “We’ve been severed from our past and we’re reaching for a connection. T’Challa has a tradition, a connection to his ancestors that I long for. You’re always going to feel like that until you make that connection.”
But do we always have to feel like that? Despite the fact that “Black Panther” made that disconnect much more obvious to me, Boseman goes on to say that talking about that disconnect is what’s necessary to heal the divide.
“There’s a conversation in this movie that is an in-house conversation,” he explained. “As an African American, there’s a conversation that you’re having with the continent as you watch this movie and the continent is having a conversation with you. That has probably never happened in a movie on this stage, ever.”
That uncomfortable conversation is happening in the movies right now. Maybe part of the reason I didn’t like “Black Panther” at first is because it wasn’t just your average comic book nerdfest. It tackled a difficult subject of internal racism within the diaspora that I’ve never seen onscreen before and that I certainly wasn’t expecting when I bought my ticket.
That this Marvel movie could evoke these emotions in viewers like me and start an uncomfortable but necessary conversation about black American and African relations actually makes “Black Panther” an amazing and important cinematic journey. And Wakanda becomes less of a fictional place I can never go to, and more like a real Afrofuture we all should strive toward, where everyone in the diaspora has a place to call home.
#WakandaForever and Wakanda for everyone.