About a minute into the official Black Panther trailer, I realise I’ve been holding my breath. Hunched over, nose close to the screen, it’s as if I’m subconsciously trying to fold my body into Marvel’s cinematic universe. If this is a baptism, I want full immersion.
And if its record-breaking advance ticket sales are anything to go by, it seems I’m not the only one breathlessly awaiting the feature-length adventures of Wakanda’s king, T’Challa.
Part of the excitement is because cinemagoers finally have a black superhero who doesn’t feel like a consolation prize. Director Ryan Coogler’s all-black cast far surpasses previous paltry offerings to the black and brown people whose dollars and pounds turn films into blockbusters, yet who rarely see themselves represented with any depth or diversity on the big screen.
Not since the Blade trilogy, starring Wesley Snipes, has a hero of colour held the limelight. We have to go back to 1998, when the first part was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. Let’s not dwell on the other two.
But the fervour over this film is about so much more than mere representation: Black Panther is both a celebration of blackness and perfectly timed political commentary. “The movie plays to a romanticised version of Africa,” says David Roberts of Entertainlynx. “Magical kingdoms, ruled by emperors and untouched by the white man.”
In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, 60 years since the Notting Hill race riots and 90 years since women aged over 21 got the vote in the UK, here is a movie set in an east African country, albeit a fictitious one, which is the most technologically advanced in the world.
Wakanda has never been colonised. As well as being a superhero, Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a religious figurehead and a political leader whose strength comes from his intellect, the superior technology in his suit, a herb that only he can eat without being poisoned, and the knowledge of his ancestors. It’s Afrofuturistic gold.
His 16-year-old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), is the smartest person in the world, and he is guarded by an elite female force who, according to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reboot of the story, are more equal than subservient: not just black and proud, but also feminist.
But the comic’s history hasn’t always been so political. In fact, having created the character in July 1966, just months before the revolutionary organisation of the same name was founded, Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby went to some lengths to distance their superhero from the politics of the day. In 1972, the character explained in a Fantastic Four comic why he was now called Black Leopard, saying his old name “has … political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
In the 70s, as new black heroes emerged from Blaxploitation films to grapple with the racial, social, economic and political issues of the day, Marvel’s writers once more attempted to make Black Panther more openly political. In one storyline, the Wakandan took on the Ku Klux Klan, but this braver political writing was apparently met with resistance or indifference.
No such indifference today. The Black Panther preview on YouTube has been watched more than 34m times in the countdown to the February release. The film’s stars are some of the most recognisable black actors, a combination of Africans from the continent and the diaspora: Angela Bassett plays T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda; Lupita Nyong’o is Nakia, a member of the Dora Milaje; Michael B Jordan is our villain, Erik Killmonger – tellingly, a Wakandan who grew up in exile; and, having already mesmerised audiences in 2017’s big black film Get Out, British-Ugandan actor Daniel Kaluuya joins the cast as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend. (I’d like to imagine that the pictures of Kaluuya wearing traditional dress at Monday’s premiere broke the internet in Uganda.)