What was meant to be a celebratory moment for (Black) comic book fans turned out offensive. This week’s Entertainment Weekly turned the highly anticipated reveal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of the first Black superhero into a fiasco of epic proportions. T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda (also known as the hero Black Panther), got sonned by EW.
Ever since it was announced that Chadwick Boseman was donning the ceremonial garb of the Panther, the Internet was set aflame. This would be one of a handful of times that a Black superhero would be depicted on the big screen. Halle Berry in the X-Men films is universally panned for her portrayal of the weather-manipulating mutant, Storm. Michael B. Jordan’s charismatic rendering of the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm was wasted in this year’s lackluster reboot. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon has appeared in Marvel films—but he’s fourth or fifth tier until he takes up the Captain America mantle. Wesley Snipes hasn’t been Blade for 11 years.
There’s been a dearth of cinematic superheroic blackness that the Black Panther is meant to rectify. There have been other Black heroes in the movies, but none are as iconic as the Black Panther. So when EW decided to dehumanize and emasculate him, the Black culture-sphere let out a collective roar of hell no!
Some would argue that this is too much energy and thought given to a fictional character. With all of the real and true to life negativity Black folks worldwide face on the daily, why take this on? It isn’t so much about the Panther himself, but of Hollywood’s (and affiliated industries’) routine abuse, omission and erasure of the Black image. Coupled with this is the manipulation of encoded Blackness and symbology.
The Black Panther leapt into the public consciousness in July 1966, in the pages of Marvel Comics’ flagship title Fantastic Four, in issue #52. This was a full three months earlier than Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton’s launch of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California. The comic character and the political movement had nothing to do with each other, but over time, they became conflated under the banner of resisting oppression and as Black cultural touchstones.
In the comics, Wakanda (T’Challa's home nation and several surrounding nation states) is an African territory that has never been conquered by the likes of France or Britain—one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, as well as being the most technologically advanced. Their wealth and technological sophistication stem from the mining and refining of the fictional metal vibranium, a metal that can absorb all vibration and kinetic energy. (Geekspeak: If you saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, this metal is what the sentient machine Ultron was looking for to build a better body for himself.)
What was bothersome in that Avengers sequence was that Wakanda was barely mentioned; just some passing reference to “Africa” and the prominent feature of one of the Panther’s major nemeses, Ulysses Klaue (a.k.a. Klaw). But not even a hint of who ruled the land that was being destroyed by super-powered battles. (Like the ruler of this kind of nation wouldn’t have jumped in to confront the interlopers himself. More omission.)
As depicted in the comics, Black Panther is handsome, assured, possessing of a genius level intellect, an Olympic level athlete, a world leader, and can hold his own in any boardroom, lecture hall, consulate or laboratory. He even married Storm. So to have him on the cover of Entertainment Weekly behind Chris Evans’s Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, face fully masked (the two White dudes went barefaced) with a diminutive “meow” by his head—not to mention their quip that he “has claws that a Real Housewife would envy”—is not only an insult to the character. It’s an insult to the Panther’s legacy as a symbol for Black excellence, resistance to oppression, and the hard fought visibility of Black characters in comic books and genre film.
Black Panther makes his cinematic debut May 6, 2016 in Captain America: Civil War. July 6, 2018 marks the date Black Panther hits silver screens nationwide. Here’s hoping they do right by him.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.