One of the greatest pleasures—and sources of conflict—around the Black Panther film adaptation is how very, very happy it has made countless Black people. Dancing with joy happy. But is it really a “game changer”? At a minimum, the record-setting box office suggests that it might force a recalibration of the profitability of Black people in front of and behind the camera. Naysayers will point to Hollywood’s short attention span and the specificity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a property that holds little potential for providing more opportunities for Black films outside of this franchise. “Game-changing” also refers to the alleged psychological importance of Black people—and particularly Black children—seeing an African (more on that later) superhero and his genius sister in such a high-profile film. Some references to it being a “game changer” are about the film’s politics.
The first two claims may be addressed with empirical data and research over time. The last assertion is about the always-thorny question of the relationship between representation and politics. Outside of some hyperbolic tweets, no one will suggest that Black Panther will liberate Black people. Some people, such as philosopher Christopher Lebron, have suggested that the film is simply a racist narrative preserving the status quo. Whether or not one agrees with Lebron that it is one example of many popular representations produced by Black people that are ultimately politically conservative, it is impossible to know anything about the history of Black Panther comics and not see the film’s effort to redress a long history of troubled representations of blackness and struggles over who best models Black liberation.
In this golden age (or, depending on your perspective, punishing eternity) of comic book adaptations, filmmakers have an endless supply of stories to choose from. Writers Ryan Coogler and John Robert Cole drew from many different versions of Black Panther and their script contains the traces of this struggle. This slow decolonization of the Black Panther is the effort to decenter the white perspective from the construction of the character. If we recognize that representation matters, and that Black representation has been a tool in white supremacy, tracing the character over decades illustrates an epic struggle to make a “real” Black character out of something that was a white fantasy of blackness.
Beginning as a character encountered by The Fantastic Four in 1966, he was a response to calls for more and better Black representation in popular media. At the urging of the white quartet, he left Wakanda, pledging his “powers,” “fortune” and “life” “to the service of all mankind.” Black people on his continent and in the diaspora arguably had special needs at the time. Thus, his general inattentiveness to racial inequality was consistent with superheroes of the period but particularly glaring and galling when a Black superhero did it. A superhero focused on everyone as opposed to the Black liberation struggle was more palatable for white readers.
Don McGregor’s “Panther’s Rage” (1973-1976) was the major first step in decolonizing the character. The story arc introduced long-form epic storytelling to Marvel comics and is considered by many to be the story that allowed T’Challa to develop as a character and Wakanda as a place. White writer McGregor dared to imagine that people would buy comic books that did not have any white protagonists. That this is still a controversial idea in mainstream media was evidenced by the early concern over the marketability of the Black Panther adaptation, which would be the most expensive film ever to have a predominately Black cast. “Panther’s Rage” nevertheless illustrates not only what was groundbreaking about the series but also how the progressive writer was still slightly challenged by colonial legacies. African American artist Billy Graham did some of his finest work in these issues, crafting African Americans with diverse phenotypes and body types. But while McGregor was a beautiful writer who made leaps and bounds in contributing to Black characterization, his arc is still hampered by a construction of Africans as sometimes demonstrating backwardness. T’Challa’s African American girlfriend Monica Lynne often offered a modern point of view as a proxy for readers.
Monica highlights an ongoing problem and question with Black Panther—is he really an African superhero? Evolving from the problematic history of jungle comics, the efforts to present a Black perspective were undeniably marked by what they imagined as an African American perspective. But while the Wakandans had a great deal of depth, Monica still functioned as American gaze onto the country. No version of Black Panther has ever shaken that tendency in any iteration, including the film adaptation in which the Black diasporic presence is strong. Many Africans are nonetheless finding much to love about the pan-African, Afrofuturist representation of a fictional nation state and its people.
Christopher Priest (1998-2003) would do the most to emphasize that the western gaze was a big part of what Black Panther was about. With a wry sense of humor, he began his run by telling much of the story through the eyes of white government agent Everett Ross, who constantly calls attention to how impossible the Black Panther and Wakanda are for western people to imagine. A moment in the recent film recalls this ongoing theme of the series when a person in the U.N. wonders what Wakanda could possibly offer the rest of the world. Priest also created the Dora Milaje who accompany the king. But his creations are Blaxploitation fantasies fighting with high heels, processed hair, and dresses ending at their crotches. They make sense as appendages to Priest’s T’Challa, who is a cross between James Bond and Shaft.
Reginald Hudlin (2005-2010) would give us T’Challa’s sister Shuri, provide a more Afro-centric and less sexist version of the Dora Milaje, and marry T’Challa off to X-Men’s Storm. Arguably the depiction of the women in Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s runs marks the most important progressive shift in recent iterations of Black Panther. Part of the aesthetic pleasure of the blackness in the film is the number of beautiful dark-skinned women who eschew processed hair. Decolonizing western beauty standards in a Hollywood film is no small affair. But ideologically, it is also a woman character, Nakia, who offers a political counterpoint that is a compromise between T’Challa’s conservatism and the sympathetic villain’s call for a violent global uprising. After all, people are arguing over the different view of Black liberation presented in a Disney film. This is not Lee and Kirby’s Black Panther.
The road to better Black representations is a long one, often because people are constantly reworking the old ones. In seeing the debates take place, I was reminded of an issue in McGregor’s run, “And All Our Past Decades Have Seen Revolutions.” People undersell and oversell the impact of Black struggles—and this is perhaps even more true in the realm of representational politics. Black Panther is not the most progressive film imaginable, but it is more than many had hoped for. Our past decades have seen revolutions that have not produced the changes that mark the end of what’s possible. Some people left the film disappointed, but by most accounts, many people are leaving with joy. Either way, it is not the end of the possibility for what Black Panther can be. And isn’t that wonderful to know?
Rebecca Wanzo is associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and associate director of the Humanities Center at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published widely on African American literature history and culture; theories of affect; popular culture (particularly the history of popular genre fiction and graphic storytelling in the U.S.); critical race theory; and feminist theory. Her first book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling, appeared in 2009 (SUNY Press). She is currently completing The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comics and Citizenship, under contract with New York University Press.