Black Panther is to cinema as Rakim is to Hip-Hop.
I stand by this statement.
Before Rakim, rap lyricism sounded a certain way. It was good, but no one would ever claim it was nuanced or anymore lyrically complex than a third-grader’s oral presentation. In 1986 this was no longer the case. Anyone who called themselves an emcee had to reevaluate this claim. The culture was put on notice. Eric B. and Rakim dropped the one-two punch of “Eric B. Is President” and “My Melody.” Before this, hip-hop produced work that was sonically sophisticated, but lyrically pedestrian. No shots at LL, Mantronix, Run-D.M.C., Busy Bee, Kurtis Blow, Roxanne Shante, Whodini, Lady B, Funky Four Plus One, or any of the other pioneers of this culture and art that, to this day, I still claim.
But the Rakim event was like going from reading your local weekly newspaper to discovering N.K. Jemisin. Your entire perspective of what the art form could do, what it could be, was irreversibly changed.
I feel Black Panther has had a similar impact. But first, let me go back to 2011 and a wonderful little film called Attack the Block.
After seeing the film (four times in a week) I thought POC representation in Sci-Fi would skyrocket. Aliens landing on a council estate, populated by POC, instead of landing in some middle/upper-middle class white pseudo-bucolic setting? Instead of adopting the aliens and making them family, the hood kids had to fight them? When have POC youth ever had the on-screen opportunity to repel an alien invasion? I was sure this would be a hit. Could I have been more wrong?
I cannot count the people I introduced to this film. Few people had a clue that it even existed. I became an evangelist for the film. I bought out a theater, I hosted screenings, I wanted everyone to bask in the glory. It dropped in May and by the middle of June, most folks — even hardcore Blerds — forgot about it.
It took nine years for me to have that feeling again; that feeling of, ‘This is it! This moment is momentous for Black folks and other POC!’ This time, I was right. I won’t go too much into it here, but read this and you can get a better sense of why I believe Black Panther is a movement and not only just a film.
I’ll paraphrase author Steven Barnes: Panther gave black folks a language, a homeland, rituals, resources, and a sense of community that was stripped from non-Continental Africans. When I saw Panther, there was so much joy and pride in the line waiting to get in, while watching the film, after the post-credit scenes, in the parking lot and weeks and weeks after initial viewings. It momentarily repaired the social, cultural, and cosmological wounds.
After Panther, can we really go back to that wounded space of dying first in horror films, being the sassy sidekick to the clueless white person; being the asexual mystical lodestone that points the hapless white protagonist in the right direction; Soul Plane; being rendered invisible or as cannon fodder in fantasy and Sci-Fi film? Hell, outside of film, what about being denied gallery and catwalk space? Having our culinary heritage relegated to curiosity instead of a valuable and valued cultural folkway? Once the front and center luster of Black Panther fades, are we willing to drift back to the margins, or the margin of the margins?
While this Panther moment is wonderful and the film is amazing, what’s next for us? I’m actually much more interested in the creativity, the movements, the new narrative languages that will exist because some creative saw Panther and was inspired to remain in and hold the center, than I am about the film itself and its inevitable sequels.
I feel this ‘what’s next’ is going to lean more towards creative celebration of the self and the creator’s particular affinity, rather than the big struggle to be seen and heard. If we’re honest, so much (of the impactful) art by POC and other marginalized peoples centers oppression. We’re trying to preempt it, we’re defending against it, we are directly or indirectly addressing it.
The argument could be made that being marginalized is a defensive position and that any art produced from and for the marginalized has to center oppression, because not to acknowledge our social and cultural positionally would be irresponsible and possibly dangerous. But isn’t it more irresponsible to allow what harms us footholds in our lives? Black Panther pushed this ‘oppression be damned’ ball further down the field than I thought possible for a big screen epic. But it wasn’t the first to do so.
Eddie Murphy gave us Boomerang. By a very wide margin, it is my favorite Eddie Murphy film. Why? It was all black, all the time. It didn’t deal in poverty/hood pathology, it wasn’t Precious trauma porn, nor did it treat that world as anything other than ‘this is the way it is.’
That’s important. The normalization of affluent black people, with interior lives, not having to be strong or stoic or having to suffer through physical hardships to legitimize their existence was revolutionary in 1992.
We need more of this. We need the movement from the pop cultural margins to the normalized center.
Most of us have put a lot on Black Panther and its unrealized legacy. Same as we have done with hip-hop.
Hip-hop began on some (necessary) party and BS, let’s dance, write, and DIY away American trauma. It then matured into the ‘CNN of Black America’ as Public Enemy’s Chuck D offered, matured a little more, regressed some, and is now a polyvalent cultural (not youth) form that offers something to anyone who choses to participate. Hip-hop has empowered and impacted damn near every sector of world culture. I mean, Kendrick Lamar just won the Pulitzer for Damn. And there would be no Lamar without the forced lyrical upgrade to hip-hop caused by the culture’s premiere wordsmith, Rakim. Black Panther is poised to do the same.
While I may be expecting too much, I sincerely hope that the ripple effect of Panther forces marginalized creatives (especially those operating in the nerd spaces) to truly see the film as an invitation to create with abandon. To find the joy in their art and existence and create from that place. What would a queer story look and feel like without having to deal with homophobia? A POC story not having to pay any mind to racism and white supremacy? A women’s story created from a place were the male gaze and patriarchy weren’t factors to contend with? The possibilities are staggering.
Some of these things already exist. I’ve read, heard, and experienced them. But these creations aren’t the norm. What I’m hoping for, and will explore, is the development of a new narrative/cultural language to better tell our stories, free from the restraints and constraints of our (sometimes intersecting) oppressions. We need new stories for new audiences, audiences who’ve seen the possibilities and want more of them.