Essays, Luminaries

Black Panther is Fiction, but Black Excellence is Real

Did you get the inside jokes about race in the film Black Panther? They were all there, lying in plain sight for those of us who grew up black in certain decades and certain kinds of households. As I watched Black Panther with my family on its debut weekend, I found myself making eye contact and laughing aloud with my wife and kids at times during the movie that some of my fellow movie-goers didn’t quite seem to get. It’s the same feeling I have when I watch the TV show Black-ish – with its upscale family of five children who attend private school, and whose parents are professionals. It’s so spot-on with the wry humor that lives in every striving black family that I still can’t believe America has embraced the show so enthusiastically. Like all great entertainment, both of these properties exist on multiple levels – and it feels as if some of the jokes were written just for us: for the members of the black community.

Of course, it’s not just the jokes. There are many poignant moments in the film that resonate deep in the core of black people of a certain age and aspiration level. Moments about both race and class. Surely director Ryan Coogler knew this. I wonder how many viewers do.

I come to this question with a particular point of view. I’ve spent years studying and documenting the mores of a particular subset of our black community: the black elite. As I pointed out, to the chagrin of many, in my New York Times bestselling history book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class (HarperCollins), the black elite has been particularly incensed by the portrayal of black people in entertainment through most of history.

This elite group, first established in the 1880s and 1890s, was initially comprised of emancipated slaves and free blacks who graduated from schools like Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Fisk, Harvard and Columbia. They gained wealth and prestige through their positions as physicians, dentists, educators, government lawyers, and entrepreneurs who opened black insurance companies, funeral homes and banks to serve the nation’s growing black population. And because of their keen understanding of both the white and black worlds, and the behaviors they learned to exhibit to inhabit both successfully, this group in particular has always been intensely aware of how others saw and portrayed black people in popular entertainment.

So many of the 20th-century (and early 21st-century) images of black America on TV and film were negative: blacks were servants, criminals, victims, abusers, uneducated or impoverished. So many of us who are black have spent decades desperately looking for images and characters to support our desire that on screens of all sizes, black people be portrayed at our best. Not even as we really are – we want to be seen in an idealized state, just like the white people on the screen. Not just for the sake of demonstrating to others that black people and our families have the exact same capacity for greatness that they do. But also to remind ourselves and to teach our children that as a community, on our best day, we are fantastic. Exceptional. Worthy of respect and admiration. Just like every other community.

That’s why even now, I am still proud of The Cosby Show.  It was the first time that on a sustained basis, we saw a loving, functional, smart black professional family with the same high ambitions and dreams that other TV families have always been allowed to have.

Of course there have been other milestones along the way, like the long-awaited first black Disney Princess, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

And it goes without saying that Election Night 2008 was the best night of TV any black family could ever ask for: President and Mrs. Obama and their daughters represented our community and our families in an impeccable manner from that night forward through eight years in the White House and on to today.

But still, there was a longing that I wouldn’t have been able to give voice to until suddenly it was met. We needed a superhero. A real black superhero. Who knew? And if this hero’s journey could also convey serious messages about race, culture, colonialism and socioeconomic tensions within our own community – well, that would be unimaginably good. The stuff of dreams. Surely that was impossible, though – Hollywood would never support it. And then it happened.

Spoiler Alert: DO NOT read any further if you haven’t seen Black Panther yet. You deserve to experience as we did, fresh and new, and I don’t want to rob you of that experience.

You’ve been warned. OK, we’re going in.

The black people of Black Panther are what we’ve been waiting for seemingly forever: they collectively demonstrate intelligence, confidence, and ambition; loyalty to family and to country.  Everyone is at the top of their game: regal, witty, passionately articulate, well-dressed, good-looking, and worthy of notice.  This is a group of black people that makes us look good, that shows us at our best. Finally.

This black community has a gracious royal family, technological advances, and well-planned cities. They’ve been clever enough to hold onto a valuable mineral (Vibranium) that is highly desired by the Western world. Even the evil black characters (Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan and M’Baku, leader of the Jabari Tribe, played by Winston Duke) are brilliant and charismatic: cunning, courageous, driven, ambitious and authoritative. They’re not paper tigers, nor moustache-twirling villains. They’re fully-realized, flawed, and deeply human men. Imagine that.

Another thing we observed that stood out as quite unusual? White characters are largely inconsequential in Black Panther. They’re relegated to the roles usually occupied by black people: villain, side-kick, walk-on museum employee (who dies within minutes of uttering her first line).

But let me get really specific, so you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Here are 7 moments that might have passed by many people unnoticed, but that touched me and many in our community very deeply – a couple of which rocked me to the core. It was the first time in a very long time that it felt like an action-sci-fi-big-budget movie was talking directly to essence of who we are – that it was talking directly to me.

1. The hair comment. It’s a tossed-off remark from the spy Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) to the military general Okoye (Danai Gurira) as they’re entering the nightclub in Korea. The bald Okoye is wearing a wig so that she’ll blend in with the swanky crowd, and its bugging the hell out of her. Nakia gives a sly grin that’s almost, but not quite, directed at the camera and says: “just swing it around, like the wind is blowing through it.” Okoye scoffs scornfully, and the scene continues. But for those of us who grew up (or had sisters who did) desperately wanting “white hair” that would move when we threw our heads around, it was a Moment. Like when Whoopi Goldberg did her comic sketch decades ago, and threw around a white towel wrapped to her head to try to capture the dream of silky straight hair.

2. The wig toss. Later in the same scene, Okoye gets into hand-to-hand combat (as one does in these kinds of movies) and she immediately throws her wig away, hard, as if to say “It’s go time, and I need to be who I really am.” Any black person who has ever dressed a certain way, wore their hair a certain way, or spoke in a particular way that felt unnatural and forced in order to assimilate, understands the visceral thrill of throwing off the artificial elements and emerging as one’s true self.

3. The gun comment. A few minutes later, as General Okoye and Nakia are in a car chase with the bad guys, the general spits out the phrase: “Guns. So primitive.” She has stellar skills with her spear, which she deploys with great elan, while the other side just points semi-automatic machine guns and starts firing. It reminded me of all the times that black people have been called incompetent, unskilled, barbaric, backwards – you name it. How incredibly empowering to have a strong black woman look in contempt on some behaviors and norms of white society, to feel so superior that it barely needs to be stated. Sure, it might come off as reverse racism to some people. So be it.

4. The call-out. When Black Panther’s little sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) greets the ailing white CIA agent who’s been brought back to Wakanda to be healed with a tossed-off “Hey, colonizer!” it’s both funny and exhilarating. For black people living in a white professional world, how many times have we swallowed what we really wanted to say? To not voice our anger, sadness, frustration and irritation with always having to be the one to adapt, always the one to have to laugh at other people’s jokes, always having to hide our annoyance with “white people’s assumptions” about us, our families, and our heritage. To just call out what you really think, without belaboring it? Damn, girl, that was just fantastic.

5. The identification. In the film, everyone in Wakanda can demonstrate that it’s their homeland by pulling down their lower lips and revealing a thin purple line of Vibranium, which is found only in their country. This ability to wordlessly identify one of your own exists in real life in the black community. When we see each other in a majority- or all-white setting, it’s usually a nod, or a brief moment of eye contact. But there’s almost always a soundless show of solidarity: yes, I’m one of you. I’ve got your back.

6. The arms across the chest. When Wakandans need to release a burst of power, they cross their arms over their chests, and then make a magnificent gesture as they uncross them, which unleashes a powerful energy. It’s the exact same gesture that a slave would make when throwing off chains, when being liberated from bondage. It’s the gesture one makes when one has successfully fought to become free. The imagery reminded me very strongly of scenes in Alex Haley’s Roots.

7. The death scene. Near the end of the film, when the villain Killmonger and Black Panther T’Challa are at the edge of a cliff looking out over Wakanda, and Killmonger refuses any attempts to heal his mortal wounds because he’d rather be dead than in chains, the motif unmistakably reminded me of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – one a firebrand, the other a man of peace – both fighting for their people and for basic justice. In the film, one is lost. Of course, in real life, both were murdered. Neither philosophy triumphed – not the peacemaker, not the war-monger. It made the scene a great deal darker for us than it might have been for others. If neither peace nor war will set people truly free, then what will?

The other strong element that comes out in numerous ways in the film is the class divide within our black community. The hero, T’ Challa, is literally raised as a black prince by two loving parents, and inherits wealth and power at a level most people could never imagine. The villain, Killmonger, is literally left behind as a young black boy – raised in poverty and living with the trauma of having seen his father die a violent death in their small apartment. The depth of the anger and contempt that Killmonger has for the elite T’Challa cuts to the bone of a long-simmering conversation in real life: what is the responsibility of the elite members of the community to those who have been left behind?

People will be discussing and dissecting this film for years to come. And that’s as it should be. A certain segment of the female movie-going population detected a long-awaited political message in Marvel’s 2017 Wonder Woman, and held it close to their hearts during difficult times. For our black community, this is the equivalent. Times are really tough, and given our nation’s current leadership, we’re feeling very much on the outside again.

But we have a superhero now. We’ll share him with the rest of the world, of course. But we know, deep inside: he and his people are really here to stand for – and to provoke – us.

Lawrence Otis Graham is a real estate attorney in New York and is a New York Times bestselling author of 14 nonfiction books including Our Kind of People: the History of America’s Black Upper Class (HarperCollins). A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, his work has appeared in The Best American Essays, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and U.S. News & World Report, where he has served as a contributing editor. Graham has appeared on The Today Show, ABC News’ Nightline, PBS’ Charlie Rose and other programs. He sits on the boards of the Horace Mann School, Eaglebrook School, and State University of New York-Purchase College.

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