Black Panther: What’s Missing
The Disney film Black Panther is having its extended moment across America, and the moment is deserved. BP is a blockbuster with a huge audience—it has passed The Lion King in revenues—and with a black director, black script-writers, a nearly all-black cast, and a notable black hole in the cultural commentary.
Black Panther is set in an indefinite present/future in Wakanda, an African kingdom that did not suffer the outrages of actual African history, including slavery, invasion and colonization, and exploitation. It offers a vision of black glory and power that has never before been put up on the screen. BP, the film, is cause for celebration among many African-Americans, and has moved through the culture in triumphant competition with the realities of detentions and deportations, mass shootings, and daily Trump-related revelations. No one can deny the power of connecting American blacks to Africa, and a myth that leads people to celebrate. But there’s something missing.
Captivated by the movie, the media has ignored the opportunity to relate it to the same subject matter currently being offered in the Black Panther comics and novel series of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the highly respected public intellectual, memoirist, and journalist. In 2015 Coates (a fan of the movie who praises it as “Star Wars for black people”) agreed with Marvel to take on the BP writing project as a way of bringing his sensibility and interests to the medium of an existing brand of comics that has a broad audience. It is a valuable gift; however, apart from fantasies of superheroes and imaginary kingdoms, Coates writes (in his books and essays) with great power about the realities of America and black culture. The spotlight on the movie could be shone much more broadly, across a national audience and throughout pop culture, to bring awareness of both Coates’s current work for Marvel and his journalism and his books, for which he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. So far, the media has not bothered to make this connection.
The movie’s own credits, and the coverage everywhere else, cite the formative work of (oft-robbed) Stan Lee & (long dead) Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, period. But Black Panther (King T’Challa), the character (and many other related characters), and the world of Wakanda are kept continuously alive by Coates and his collaborators. For reviewers of the film not to mention that work (Coates is also writing the Captain America comics now) is an example of the failure of those who have been given the mic as cultural commentators—and that omission, at this time, seems indefensible.
Black Panther, the movie, has sprung with great force into the culture, and has thoroughly captured the public’s attention. It has set off a lot of good discussion, and it offers an empowering vision for many people. But its Hollywood blockbuster moment comes out of 400 years of actual American history, understood in terms of the African-American experience; and one of the best ways of grasping the current meaning of that history, and the reality of that experience, is in the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who (on many fronts) gives us work that a very large audience ought to be aware of and attend to.
- The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008.
- Between the World and Me: Notes on the First 150 Years in America. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
- We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, 2017 (essays)