Up Next

Black Panther

She didn’t want to watch ‘Black Panther’ with whites on opening night, but then why was she surprised more of them didn’t show up?

In sharing Wakanda, there’s a thin line between showing off and guarding against cultural appropriation

It feels late on opening night when I finally sat down to watch Black Panther at a theater outside Washington, D.C. Late because the landmark superhero, who hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda, was introduced in Marvel comics more than 50 years ago. Late in cinematic history for a Hollywood blockbuster, poised to break box-office records, to feature a black director and nearly all-black cast centered in the black gaze telling stories from the African diaspora.

Late because it was 10 p.m. — the early shows were sold out — and I had been reading rave reviews for days, hot takes on Twitter for weeks, and I was poised for a near religious experience.

I dressed the part — wore black down to my socks and bright red lipstick. (My daughter’s boyfriend had worn a dashiki and carried a walking cane to an earlier show.) I was primed for beloved community. But I live in a predominantly white neighborhood, so I readied to commune with my husband while $200 million worth of creativity cocooned us in black thought. “Wakanda Forever!” I was here for it all and I walked into the theater real clear I was going to have to show these white people something, though precisely what, I am still working out.

I’m old enough to remember when the ABC miniseries Roots broadcast a vision of family, history, visceral slavery and foundational plunder into nearly half the living rooms in America and grown people would say for days afterward they didn’t trust themselves to speak to white people.

As I grew older, I began to see dolls and characters who looked like me and began to astral project into the characters — Lois Lane, the leads in I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched — who didn’t look like me but served up the charisma and power I needed to negotiate with the world for better terms.

I began to recognize that white people and institutions writ large had never fully recovered from the lies they told themselves to put black people on par with the footstools and sets of china they bequeathed to their children. In college, I was growing into a consciousness I did not yet have words for, so I simply wore my pink and green T-shirt that proclaimed “Black to the Future” on a plane while wearing microbraids, listening to Eric B. and Rakim on my Walkman and making Don’t even try it! eyes with the people in first class. This was pre-internet and I didn’t realize there was a nascent movement that captured exactly how I was feeling.

Now, under the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe (created by Kayla Sutton of Black Girl Nerds), Los Angeles-based author and educator Tananarive Due tweeted that it meant: “Breaking free of the ‘comfortable’ tropes of sidekicks and sacrifices, soaring into our technological future while honoring history & tradition. Seeing myself and my children’s destiny reflected in the empowering mirror of #Afrofuturism.”

Afrofuturism is a genre that “expands this vision we have of ourselves in the past, present and future,” said Due, who teaches a course on black horror at UCLA, and is planning a course she calls “Wakanda Bound: Intro to Afro Futurism.” It is comics, myths, magical realism, horror stories from the African diaspora that imagine new deities, timelines. It’s Shuri, sister of the Black Panther, King T’Challa, and a 16-year-old technological genius. It’s vibranium, an otherworldly element so strong and energy-absorbent, it’s capable of leveling the playing field for black people.

Due fantasized about buying out a theater for a watch party, but instead she and her family bought tickets when they first went on sale because “films that are set in fiction like Black Panther help give us the nutrients some of us didn’t even know we were craving” to help deal with mass incarceration, police shooting, a newly resurgent Southern apologia, 45. “So we can face that reality and we can face that history. But with power.”

It’s been decades since I honed my own superpowers. My ability to code switch gives me a facility with language and thought, along with the entitlement to recognize that I don’t have to change a word and people will catch up if they can. I can discern those who are merely different from those who are dangerous. I can identify the parts of white people they don’t recognize in themselves and that gives me the power to resist a reality I know is wrong no matter how unhinged some Americans get over black people kneeling during the national anthem to protest inequality and violence.

“To be black and be conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” James Baldwin once said and our need to stay in our right minds makes our celebrations, our fictive kinships, our Friday nights at the Black Panther opening suffused with kente cloth, Nubian Nu-Nile cream and Kendrick Lamar. We know much of America doesn’t understand why we’ve always got to be so extra, but we don’t need them to. We call that being free.

In our everyday, non-Wakandan timeline, I hate the back-to-school commercials where the young white girl pops and locks. I don’t even know any white girls who can pop lock, but I know black intellectuals who can. Because there is a constant celebration of black creativity, the real vibranium, by white people who claim it for themselves without credit in service of agendas that erase us or do us harm.

We know much of America doesn’t understand why we’ve always got to be so extra, but we don’t need them to. We call that being free.

At a minimum, opening night of Black Panther feels like an extension of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the polarities of race are reversed and in the grip of black magnetism. I walk into my local nondiverse neighborhood theater ready with an implicit corrective to would-be white fans: Do not misunderstand what type of party this is.

I was ready for my call and response, ready to “yaaas” out loud, reject cultural appropriation, and indulge in black celluloid and shea butter fantasies. I was ready to preen and show off. But there was a paradox in the night. I was not quite ready for all the white people who didn’t show up. I was not quite ready to see more black and brown people on that one night than I’d seen in more than a year of living in suburban Virginia.

Black Panther’s opening-day box office ($75.8 million) set a single-day gross record for a solo superhero movie and projections for the four-day holiday weekend exceed $220 million. As of November, the 17 Marvel films had grossed more than $12 billlion worldwide and Black Panther may crack the top five.

In breaking box office records, it’s obviously drawing huge white crowds just not at the theater in my white neighborhood on opening night. It makes sense. Black people had made opening weekend a statement. A way to keep faith with one another, pay homage to Martin Luther the King and offer Proud Marys to black Jesus. I doubt it carried that kind of cultural freight for white fans, who will hear it’s a good movie, and make their way to see it by and by. And while it’s been billed as a once-in-a-generation cultural event for black people, it’s still unclear what impact it will have on the larger moviegoing culture.

Cheo Hodari Coker, creator, executive producer and showrunner of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix said, “Black people love black people and we also love superheroes.” But he predicts fans of any color who have been following the comic books will embrace it as well. “They’re going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, they actually got Wakanda right!’ ”

Coker compares the world director Ryan Coogler created in Black Panther to what Spike Lee movies do for Brooklyn what John Singleton does for South Central Los Angeles, what he does with Luke Cage in Harlem. “I didn’t know anything about Scotland or heroin when I watched Trainspotting, but Danny Boyle so created a world. He also did this thing with Slumdog Millionaire,” said Coker.

Black people had made opening weekend a statement. A way to keep faith with one another, pay homage to Martin Luther the King and offer Proud Marys to black Jesus.

A black world offers an opportunity for nonblack filmgoers, if they take it. “Black culture is a pool and it’s buoyant,” Coker said. “You’ll float if you stop resisting. If you stop flailing around, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t understand this culture, I don’t understand this world. I don’t understand what they’re talking about. Why is everybody laughing?’ And you just relax and float, you’ll actually find that it’s like swimming in any other pool.”

Black culture informs popular culture “The mainstream always looks to us to define itself, then either waters down, incorporates, or, more recently, doesn’t try to alter it,” Coker said. He predicts that Black Panther’s stunning box office numbers will erase perceptions of the limits and scope of black film. It’s like the album Kind of Blue, with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, that acted as a gateway for people unfamiliar with jazz.

I didn’t need a gateway to remind me that black characters are compelling, that black stories are visceral, that black people are complicated and quirky, black love is lovely and black intellect can change the world. But for African-Americans, sitting in the theater on opening weekend was important. I now realize it was also a chance to show off. I thought I had evolved beyond the desire to demonstrate excellence to white people. My surprised reaction to a theater full of mostly black and brown fans showed me that I am not.

Walking out of the theater, two local sisters (yes, black, but also actual sisters), Courtney Bell, a day care teacher, and Shannon Bell, a server at a nearby restaurant, had a similar mix of feelings.

Courtney loved the superhero with the hip-hop beat, said the fashion was amazing, and loved how the story made “black people the front-runners.” But both were surprised that the lines were not out of the door for tickets and popcorn. “I thought there would be more white people,” Courtney said.

“You’re just, like, lost if you don’t come see it,” said Shannon, who said her white co-workers didn’t seem especially enthusiastic when she told them she was going to opening night. “Like, Wakanda forever!”

“We don’t need your approval,” Courtney co-signed.

“I’ve let go of hoping for that kind of receptivity,” said Shannon. “It’s not just for us, but if you want to make it that way, whatever. It’s our gift.” She quotes from Black Panther: “Wise men build bridges, foolish men build barriers.”

Walking back to my car, I was reminded of the ways the movie wrestled with the big geopolitical questions of community and tribal kinship inside a country and across the diaspora. Wrestled with how much of our gifts to give and how to keep them safe with distance and boundaries. I had gone into the theater thinking I didn’t want to share Black Panther, this affirming, groundbreaking cultural win, with white people. But that wasn’t true. I just didn’t want them to appropriate, to exploit, to misunderstand, to minimize, to harm or make me angry. And with white folks, that’s always the danger.

I was reminded that we are all, always, in constant meditation about how we can live in this world together with dignity and peace. And all of our badass, black to the future, if you come for me, I’m coming for you superpowers. It just so happens those are the big questions Wakandans are wrestling with as well.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.