I went to see Black Panther and I cried. For real cried. I cried because I saw my aunts and grandmothers and mothers and sisters holding shit down like we know black women have been doing for a long time. I cried because my daughter was with me and she saw it too. Those smart, caring, and whoop-your-ass-if-you-mess-with-me black women reminded me of my aunt who, while cooking, told us a story about her cutting a dude with a straight razor who was grabbing her after she said no. She was telling me and her son to respect women while also telling her daughters my sisters to protect themselves. Those women reminded me of my grandmother who had ten kids and raised all of them plus ten or more grandkids. In the movie, I’m willing to bet that none of the Wakandan women would’ve left behind child-Killmonger. They would’ve bought him back, found him a room, fed and hugged him, and when he was old enough to understand, they would’ve said, “Your dad fucked up. He was trying to do something good, but he fucked up.” The Wakandan women, unfortunately, had to fix the men’s shortcomings, their inability to be nurturing. And that is too real.
I went into Black Panther neutral. I never expect much from Disney movies in terms of diverse representation or strong stances on social issues. Plus, I’m not of fan of monarchies in real life or in comics, because monarchies gain wealth by colonizing and stripping wealth from their own citizens. I don’t care about Thor or T’Challa, or the epitome of white privilege, Batman and Tony Stark. But I enjoy the movies, they’re fun.
I’ve seen very few popular movies where black people get to be fully expressive complex humans. We’re usually in films as props who are just there to boost whiteness by providing some clichéd spiritual advice (see Jennifer Hudson in Sex and the City and Will Smith in Legend of Bagger Vance). Or we’re there to make white people seem cool and edgy, or to relieve their white guilt (see The Help). African men show up in movies as thoughtless monsters who only want to shoot white people or chop them with machetes. There are plenty of other examples of us being props in pop culture, and it’s depressing.
But not Black Panther. Although I disagreed with Killmonger wanting to be a king, I identified with him being raised in black poverty in America, and that feeling of being ignored and erased. That old feeling of needing to know your ancestry and wanting to know why some of us were slaves and some weren’t and wanting to help but feeling hopeless because you don’t have the resources. And that old glowing anger of seeing people with resources who won’t/don’t help. Black characterization so complex we get to identify with the “villain.”
Black Panther is a future or alternate world where black people actually exist. Most Sci-Fi and Fantasy feel like horror movies to me because futures and alternate worlds are imagined without black people. We sat back and watched that new-ish Star Wars movie get praised for having a black hero. But where was his family? Blackness in a vacuum that helps save a white woman. White people were so upset for Hermione when she was called a Mudblood. But no one was upset that there was only one black kid whose main purpose was to commentate on the athleticism of the white heroes.
Being the only black kid in that world, they could’ve showed my man Lee Jordan crying in the Room of Requirement because one of them little white kids called him a nigger. One of them little white kids called my daughter a black bitch when she was going to school in the U.K. while I was there studying abroad. The author has Hermione freeing house elves from bondage but couldn’t create more than a few black and Asian characters with human complexities. It’s important to imagine ourselves in the future for ourselves (thankful to Afro-Futurism in music and literature). But I also like Black Panther’s implied “fuck you” of imagining ourselves as full humans in the future and alternate worlds in front of white people. Maybe that could change their imagination also (although that’s not the goal).
I feel like most of the black art in this country has been saying, in various ways, “We still here muh’fuckas!” Because you know, people have been trying to kill us off for a long time. And I feel like Black Panther is also saying, “….and we will be here far into the future, thriving, black as all hell.” And that’s something to cry for, the little kid inside of me who imagines growing up into something powerful and caring.
Steven Dunn is the author of the novel Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky 2016) He was born and raised in West Virginia. Some of his work can be found in Columbia Journal and Granta Magazine. His second novel water & power is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky in fall 2018.