Black Panther opening weekend

A new way to see Africa

America is overexposed to depictions of a stereotypical Africa. If you ask most Americans, the first images they’ll think of when contemplating Africa are starving children, huts, poverty, and civil war. However, there’s much more to Africa than what we Westerners have been shown. Each of Africa’s nations tell a story of power and each have their own rich history, traditions, and cultures. From Kigali, Rwanda to Tunis, Tunisia, there are many metropolises in Africa, attracting global expats each year. But Africa’s gifts routinely fly under the radar and we hardly ever see positive portrayals of the continent in our popular media. This lack of representation affects all Americans more than they probably know, but it definitely affects us African-Americans, who are constantly dealing with the ever-present battles against stereotypes, racism, and the lasting effects of slavery.

If you think about it, the last time we’ve seen an African nation depicted as something beyond the standard stereotypes in Hollywood was 1988’s Coming to America, starring Eddie Murphy as the prince of the fictional nation Zamunda. The effect the film had on African-Americans are still felt today; it was the first time I, as a child, ever remembered seeing black people as royalty.

That experience is something even first generation African-Americans hold dear. In 2013, The Root interviewed several first generation African-Americans about their views on Coming to America, and many of those interviewed spoke of the film in glowing terms.”The movie portrays African royalty, which is powerful, giving the predominant stereotypes of Africa – à la National Geographic,” first generation Ghanaian-American Shaun Ossei-Owusu told The Root, referencing programming that focuses on emaciated African children. Another Coming to America lover, Omari Wallace, who is part Barbadian and part African-American, told The Root film “gave me the most majestic portrayal of Africans I’d ever seen, outside of ancient Egyptians.”

The place Coming to America holds in black America’s hearts allows it to have connective tissue to Black Panther. Of course, there’s the obvious – this another rare mainstream film about African royalty – but there’s also the amount of pride that these movies provide to their fans. When I watch Coming to America, I come away feeling like I’ve been affirmed; too often, the mainstream chides black people for believing higher than their supposed station in life, but Coming to America let me and others know that it’s more than all right to imagine yourself as regal, powerful, and as someone who commands respect. Through Coming to America, I came to understand more about my own African heritage and that I can see myself beyond the limited box America wants to put people like me in.

A new way to understand the unique African-American experience

It’s hilarious when some people ignorantly say how it must be easy to be black, when it’s anything but. One of the core existential stressors we have is our struggle to feel like we belong. Often, we are discriminated against, either directly or indirectly, by the government, by local and state law enforcement, the justice system, and by others in our communities. Even worse is that we can also experience discrimination from others within our own diaspora, including some African immigrants who believe the stereotypes about African-Americans told to them through exported media. In some ways, we even reciprocate that discrimination, something that’s actually addressed in Coming to America, when Darryl (Eriq La Salle) makes bigoted jokes about Akeem (Eddie Murphy) playing with wild animals in Africa. It’s within this push and pull between varying facets of identity that blackness as a construct emerges, and with it comes a sense of discovery about who we really are individually and where we fit into society.

This sense of discovery is what director Ryan Coogler himself embarked upon when writing Black Panther. Coogler visited Africa for the first time in order to better understand the continent he would be utilizing, telling Variety, “I have to go if I’m making this movie. I’m not qualified just because I look like this.” The journey was more than just geographical; for Coogler, it included a meditation on the relationship between African-Americans and the rest of the African diaspora. “For me, in retrospect, I realized a lot of what I deal with as an artist is with themes of identity,” he said. “I think it’s something common among African-Americans. For us, we’ve got a strange circumstance in terms of our view of ourselves.”

The push and pull of cultural identity seems to manifest itself in the physical forms of T’Challa and Kilmonger, who both hope for belonging, but are defined in very different and unique cultural and societal ways. While T’Challa has been raised in Wakanda and is informed by its isolationism, Kilmonger grew up in America, experiencing the country’s racism and discrimination. The two are at war over the Wakandan throne, but they are also having a harsh conversation about black identity. The vastness of the black experience is something that can’t be whittled down into just one overarching idea. It encompasses a history of subjugation as much as it encompasses the wide scope of African empowerment. Everything that falls in between those two extremes are valid forms of blackness, and that exploration of what it means to be black appears to be at the heart of Black Panther. As Coogler said to Variety, a white director wouldn’t have made a film discussing these difficult topics.

“Well, is it possible for them to make [a Black Panther movie]? It could be, yes. Would they have this perspective? Probably not,” he said. “It wouldn’t be nuanced in the same way because they wouldn’t have the same conflict. They don’t have the African-American conflict that exists: Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have ancestry that is very hard to trace.”

At this point, it should be easy to see why Black Panther is so important. The storytelling goes beyond the usual Marvel flash and flair. This is a fantasy story with ramifications set in real world politics and social experiences. It’s a film that speaks to the heart of what makes the varied African-American experiences both magical and painful. It’s a film that finally showcases not just a collection of black bodies, but a much-needed examination of blackness as an identity, a heritage, and as a collective consciousness. It shows us as multifaceted, and having all of our facets portrayed on-screen is something that is so monumental in its rarity.

Let’s hope Black Panther inspires more studios to “bet on black” and bring our experiences to the screen. Black Panther can’t be the last time we see ourselves in full regalia.

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