Black Panther: A Cinematic Marvel 

The Wakandans 

 The Movie is the Message

When I was a boy growing up in racist segregated Florida, where white supremacy was a fact in law and custom, my grandmother used to say “Boy, don’t pay no attention to those ignorant crackers; cause when the Lord made colored people he was really showing off.”  I thought of her the other night as I gazed at the beautiful people of Wakanda, a mythical African nation, on the silver screen at the Magic Johnson theater.  They struck me as a cinematic representation of Duke Ellington’s classic composition, “A Black and Tan Fantasy.” For my money, just the opportunity to gaze upon the lush ebony beauty of Lupita Nyong’o on the giant screen was worth the price of the ticket.

Lupita Nwong’o

An African Beauty

Black Panther, the latest blockbuster movie from Marvel comics is a cinematic Marvel that is taking the world by storm and raking in grand theft dough. Directed by young Afro-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, whose debut film Fruitvale Station won kudos at the Sundance Festival, the movie is exceeding all expectations. It returned the 250 million dollar investment – 200 million in production cost and 50 million in promotion – and showed a profit of 177 million within the first four days of it’s opening.

According to a February 20, article in Vanity Fair the movie grossed 242 million domestically and 427 million world-wide. Some film industry analysts are predicting that revenues from this film could reach a billion dollars!   The film’s spectacular box office performance – which is the best ever for a February release – will insure that a sequel will be made. Already young black men have been observed copying the hand gestures of the warriors in the film, and it’s anybody’s guess how big this phenomenon will become.

What at first seemed like a reckless act, investing such a vast sum in a movie featuring black people and set in Africa – 35 million more than Dr. Strange and 25 million more than Spider Man’s Homecoming – has turned out to be a brilliant business decision.  Yet, it was not business matters alone but a good measure of altruism on the part of Kevin Fiege, President of Marvel Studios, who persisted despite opposition within the company, and decided to make this film.  Recounting the reason why he and Director Coogler – who became a fan of the Black Panther when he first discovered  him in a Marvel comic  in an Oakland bookstore at the age of eight – wanted to bring the black superhero to the screen, Fiege told CNBC

“He’s making this movie for his 8-year-old self. Most importantly, you do it for other 8-year-olds, to inspire the next generation the way we were inspired. And in this case, when Ryan was growing up, perhaps there weren’t that many of these heroes to be inspired by that looked like him.”

Director Ryan Coogler

This is a remarkable and admirable departure from the values, commercial and cultural, that has governed the movie industry since the golden days of Hollywood.  As Neal Gabler points out in his path-breaking book “An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood,” the Jewish movie Moguls that built the big studios which dominated movie making were fundamentally businessmen whose principle objective was to provide escapist fare to a mass market for maximum profit.  They were not men on a mission to rescue the Jewish image from anti-Semitic propaganda, but businessmen trying to make money by enhancing the fantasy life and entertain their audience.  It was they who gave us the blond sex goddesses – Mae West, Gloria Swanson, Marylin Monroe, Kim Novak, et al – the icons of Nazi wet dreams.

In view of attitudes like that, which continue to persist, the making of Black Panther was something of a miracle.  The movie’s greatest value lay in the inspirational effect it will have on children, especially black children.   When I was a boy the only images I saw of Africans were mostly in the Tarzan movies and they were always mindless savages who said “ooga booga” and docilely did the bidding of white folks.  This conception of Africa was as much a fantasy as Wakanda, but it was demeaning to black people and amounted to psychological warfare on black children.   I wonder what affect it would have had on my imagination and self-conception –  which was already quite healthy due to my wonderful family and black teachers – if I had seen such a movie as a kid.

However, this is a movie that can appeal to people of all ages people of all ages who are into fantasy and super-hero flicks employing the computer-generated spectacles that are the stock in trade of this genre, will love the movie too.  Yet, the appeal of this movie is not simply the techno-wizardry of the spectacle, but a talented cast that makes this comic book fable come to life – and it has been a long time coming considering the fact that the black Panther was introduced in Marvel comic books 50 years ago.

The cast, composed of African and Afro-American actors, features seasoned veterans such as Academy Award winner Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, both Afro-American actors, and the West African actor Isaac de Bankole from the Cameroons. They are joined by dashing new comers like the Academy Award-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Afro-American actors Michael B. Jordon and Chadwick Boseman, one of the hottest actors in the game.  A brilliant and compelling actor, Boseman has been compiling quite a resume playing iconic Afro-American historical figures such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall.

There are many messages in this movie, intentional or not. The brilliance, courage and leadership ability of women is assumed as the most powerful General who commands the armed forces of Wakanda and the leading scientist are women. The Wakandans are anti-imperialists who have developed superior weapons because of their advanced scientific development but refuse to use them to conquer others.

The lessons about gender equality, commitment to science as a means of elevating humanity and anti-imperialism are valuable lessons for all youths, male and female.  And the fact that a studio invested a quarter of a billion dollars in a movie featuring black folks set in Africa, and has double their investment in two weeks, shattering all the myths about movies featuring black casts don’t sell well, is a welcome revelation.

However, there is a curious lesson emphasized by the King when confronted by a long-lost brother, played by Michael B. Jordon, challenges him for the throne and denounces him for refusing to arm oppressed black people around the world.  The two brothers are cast as hero and villain, good against evil.  However, when the “good” king explains why he will not arm black people with their superior weapons it sounds like something white folks would put in his mouth, not something a sane black person would say.

Boseman and Jordon

For in the eyes of white Americans no transgression by whites against blacks ever justifies violent retaliation. Which is why white Americans praised the forgiving families of the nine black worshippers gunned down in their Charleston church by the virulent white racist Dillion Root, when they would be screaming for the head of a black man who committed such a crime against whites.  This is how the white power of the purse censor black expression.  Hence, as I listened to the Wakandan king’s explanation, I thought of independent black film maker Tyler Perry’s axiom on the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules!”


Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
February 25th 2016

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