Marvel’s Black Panther & the 30 Year Wait For Real On-Screen Afrofuturism: Part 1

Ever since Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America (1988), the African Diaspora has yearned for another taste of the Afrofuturism depicted in the first 20 minutes.

It is as yet unfulfilled by the big budget products currently produced by Starz in partnership with Amazon Prime or by Marvel, CBS and DC Comics in partnership with Netflix. Even the hotly anticipated collaboration by Macro and Netflix may fall a little short. So, people of the African Diaspora have been keenly awaiting the arrival of Marvel’s Black Panther, in the hope that it just might meet the need to see our story – past, present or future – revised, interrogated, or re-examined: the very definition of Afrofuturism, not more of what we already have.

Mainstream favourite film polls almost always include The Color Purple (1985) and Boyz ‘N’ The Hood (1991). In fact, Purple was just voted Greatest Film in the History of Cinema [1] in the decennial Watch and Listen magazine poll published February 2nd, 2018!

Poll a black audience and the favourite black performances or films reflect black lives too rarely seen on film. The BFI Blackstar of Top Ten British Performances [2] reflects actors turning in mesmerising performances in atypical roles, the top 5 being a free, middle-classed violinist, a ruthlessly strategic business manager, an optometrist, a sailor and a civil rights activist. The all-time BFI Blackstar [3] favourite is the brilliant polymath detective, Sidney Poitier’s Virgil “They Call Me Mister” Tibbs in In The Heat of The Night (1967). He gets to slap a foul-mouthed racist police chief who presumes to slap him first!

Shari Headley as ‘Lisa’ and Eddie Murphy as ‘Prince Akeem’

In the List of Black Movies Ranked Best to Worst [4] in Ranker.Com’s Black Entertainment section, inner-city coming of age film, Boyz ‘N’ The Hood holds the top position with Coming To America a close second, a film poorly received by the mainstream, described as a ‘hollow and wearying Eddie Murphy fairy tale’, a “possibly funny idea“, a fairy tale. From a budget of $38m, it took $288.8m at the box office worldwide, more than half ($160.6m) taken overseas.

What Murphy gave us was essentially a quest for true love in a comedic setting and whilst there were issues with the story and dialogue, far from being a fairy tale, it actually gave the African Diaspora a foothold in a reality that pre-dates colonialisation by millennia. It gave us the possibility of believing in the advances in science, mathematics and civil engineering made on the continent, erased and suppressed for centuries, but which is in keeping with the history of the amazing inventions by Africans [5] and its Diaspora [6]. It primed us for the aspiration to come in 1990s cinema, generally acknowledged as a pioneering decade of black film. [7]

Murphy’s up-to-date cultural references and, presented in those memorable first 20 minutes, the accomplished Akeem, Crown Prince of the Zamundan aristocracy has remained unmatched on film until the release of the first-look Black Panther trailers. Akeem is awoken by a classical music chorus into a dignified and independent African realm, steeped in tradition, preserved in its natural beauty, made rich by its own resources, free from colonial influences. Review any recent promotional material surrounding Black Panther, and it’s a description you will find also describes Wakanda. T’Challa, the Black Panther, monarch of Wakanda, is acknowledged as the richest superhero [8], beating even Tony Stark/Iron Man (Marvel) and Bruce Wayne/Batman (DC), earned from Wakanda’s priceless meteorological deposits of Vibranium, already used to make Captain America’s indestructible shield.

Eddie Murphy ‘Prince Akeem’; Chadwick Boseman ‘T’Challa / Black Panther’

Black Panther is expected to entirely embody Afrofuturism in its depiction of technological brilliance and advances made by Wakandans for Wakandans, not least from its King, who is an intellectual and resourceful engineer, able to invent and create sophisticated technology; a prince who is also a skilled and measured diplomat; a fearsome royal warrior guard representing the country’s Special Forces, recruited from Wakanda’s women; women, who we already know are strong, accomplished, proud and wise; and hopefully, an adversary worthy of the need for a superhero!

Acknowledging that we have seen the scope of inclusion change with the piloting of new television series over the last few years, film has naturally lagged behind and followed the same pattern they always have: from Fruitvale Station (2013), through Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2013), Selma (2014), Straight Outta Compton (2015), Creed (2015), Concussion (2015), Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2017), the majority of African stories from big studios are rooted in the pain of real life [9] and tend to look back. Yes, even amidst the joy of the achievements of Johnson, Vaughn, Jackson and their fellow ‘computers’ in Hidden Figures, Jim Crow era America permeated every scene. The landmark, award-winning contemporary horror fantasy Get Out (2017) dared to satirise from a black perspective which took white society by surprise. Whilst it wasn’t afrofuturistic, it made a powerful statement on the appropriation of black lives for white gain.

Considering Black Panther‘s genre in film, Abar The First Black Superman (1977, Tobar Mayo) roams the ‘ghettoes’, sending street kids back to school (and graduation), empowering prostitutes to slap their pimps right back, thwarting muggers and sending them to their local police department, and seeking vengeance… on racist white neighbours. The Meteor Man (1993, Robert Townsend) shuts down crack houses, foils robberies and brokers peace…. between the local police department and two local gangs. He also can’t seem to hang on to his meta-abilities. Spawn (1997, Michael Jai White) is an anti-hero – a murdered government assassin who resurrects as a demonic “Hellspawn”, a twisted, horribly disfigured version of his former self. He chooses to serve as a force for ‘good’ and justice. However, he essentially welshes on his Faustian deal with a powerful Hellion and turns on his (now) own kind rather than leading them as a demonic army on earth! And Blade (1998), another anti-hero of sorts, is a half-vampire, who not only essentially hates one half of his heritage, but actively, mercilessly kills beings of full vampiric heritage… including his mother! So, Abar and Meteor Man’s superhuman abilities are limited to dealing with very human, quite every day (and apparently unchanged since the 1970s) drugs and arms dealing pimps (more on this in part 3), whilst Spawn and Blade turn on their own kind to protect societies who would never accept them. You might have enjoyed these movies, but this is probably what was niggling away at the back of your mind whilst these stories unfolded, and why we are still waiting.

And now, the high production values and cinematic scope of four of the biggest and best science fiction and fantasy television series available in the UK on streaming platforms since late 2016 have ensured they have all secured second seasons as fan hits, but offer a limited vision of character, not remediable by expensive CGI or lightning-fast editing.

As a fan of the genre, there is a lot to like about Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage (2016- ); Starz/Amazon Prime’s American Gods (2017 -); CBS/Netflix’s Star Trek: Discovery (2017 -); and DC Comics/Netflix’s Black Lightning (2018 -). But, look closer, and they don’t quite satisfy true Afrofuturism in specific areas.

In part 2: American Gods and Star Trek: Discovery

In part 3: Luke Cage, Black Lightning, and Raising Dion


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