Even in the colonial era of limited communications, the names of Toussaint Louverture and other revolutionaries in Haiti were whispered throughout the diaspora after they successfully threw off the yoke of French enslavers. Nat Turner’s Virginian rebellion, though failed, took the Haitian mantle of resistance and amplified it throughout the antebellum United States. In the 20th century, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was mythologized as God incarnate by the Afro-syncretic Rastafari movement in part because of his resounding triumph against Italian colonizers. Each of these and other victories, material and moral, became the early pillars of a Pan-African movement, embodied in the words of Marcus Garvey: “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”
Black Panther prompts reflection on those words. Coogler’s script, written with Joe Robert Cole, draws heavily from the comic-book history of the hero, and that canon has always gestured toward heavy ideas of Pan-Africanism and the mantle of black power. As written by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, the ongoing Black Panther comic-book run is deeply concerned with the themes presented in his journalistic oeuvre, from plunder by white-supremacist hands to the moral questions that circumscribe black nationalism. Indeed, the title of Coates’s first arc, “A Nation Under Our Feet,” takes its name from Steven Hahn’s 2003 book of the same name, which itself chronicled African American political power since the Civil War.
Evan Narcisse, who co-writes the miniseries Rise of the Black Panther with Coates, says he views Wakanda as the representation of an “unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got interrupted by colonialism.” Narcisse’s work also filters Wakanda through the prism of Haiti, the revolutionary home of black liberation in the New World.
Even before his modern rejuvenation, T’Challa and his comic-book homeland offered up the same kind of representations of difficult concepts. As Jamil Smith writes for Time, the character of the Black Panther—the first black comic-book superhero—was created in 1966 during the civil-rights movement and very much represented “a vision of black grandeur and, indeed, power in a trying time.” His creation also coincided with the interconnected rise of both the Black Power movement and a second wave of Pan-Africanism and nationalism. Though created by white writers and shepherded through eras of embarrassing racial stereotyping and caricature, Black Panther the comic has always been notable for the cultural valences of creating a bulletproof, super-rich, erudite, and aggressively independent black hero, and for its willingness to fathom black geopolitical power.
In almost every facet of production, from wardrobe and costume design to the film’s score, Coogler’s Black Panther takes that thread of power and spins it into a diaspora’s fantasy. One perhaps more controversial element of the film is how Wakanda itself must be built out of whole cloth by borrowing from a spread of distinct and very different African cultures. Even many of its on-screen denizens are played by actors not born in Africa—a fact betrayed by their inconsistent accents. But the cast does reflect the incredible breadth of the African diaspora. Gurira is the daughter of Zimbabwean immigrants to Iowa, Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents and then later raised in Kenya, Kaluuya is the son of Ugandan immigrants to London, and Wright and Winston Duke (who plays M’Baku, a key rival of T’Challa’s) were born in Guyana and Tobago, respectively.