Future Tense

What Black Panther Could Mean for the Afrofuturism Movement

Still from Black Panther.
Still from Black Panther. © 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios

Imagine the difficulties of being a Disney movie, much less a Marvel-Disney movie, in the 21st century. The financial pressures to bust the block on a global scale; the concomitant riddle of needing to seduce your diverse viewership, with its Babel Tower’s worth of tongues; the hypersensitive, vociferous, hardcore fans; and atop all that, the Mercury-hot culture wars that you simply cannot avoid engaging.

And now, if you’re Black Panther, cube all those thorny problems, because you’re fundamentally Afrocentric in a moment when anti-black animus is ascendant and white supremacist sensibilities are fashionable in many quarters. That’s what makes Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther so boldly titillating before we even glimpse its fabulous cinematography, CGI, and acting.

But it’s Black Panther’s explicitly and unabashedly political futurism that stuns as its story unspools. In a sense, the movie can be read as indirectly chastising a certain slice of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a diverse, largely trans-Atlantic arts, technology, and sciences movement focused broadly on the fabrication and traffic in black futures. It’s a vital field of activities, but too often, it can become stylishly superficial, whimsically escapist, and parochial. Afrofuturist art’s “progressive-looking opulence” can prioritize the “looking” over the “progressive.” At times, too, Afrofuturist works can invite us to drop out politically and luxuriate in fantastical, self-valorizing fictions. And as Nnedi Okorafor, the Nigerian American author of a six-issue Black Panther digital comic and a slew of other science fiction and fantasy titles, has noted, Afrofuturism “has traditionally been based and rooted far too much in American culture.” Black Panther advocates for a far more practically progressive, Pan-African political engagement.

Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is the recently anointed king of Wakanda, a theocratic nation-state located near the geographic center of Africa. It is so doggedly isolationist and technologically superior that it sits behind a virtual reality scrim that makes it appear “primitive” to outsiders. Wakanda basically screens an ultra–high-resolution racist movie all around itself, its version of a national border-spanning wall. Inside that protective barrier, Black Panther orchestrates and polices techno-political futurity. At its core, Black Panther is a meditation on the foolishness of this wall and the steep costs of taking it down.

The comic and the movie agree that Wakanda’s Black Panther political order was created in response to a massive meteor’s violent arrival. “The Gift,” as it is called, contains a huge amount of vibranium, an extremely durable metal that exhibits a range of unique, exploitable electromagnetic and physical characteristics. Exposure to vibranium increases the mutagenic rates of life forms in soon-to-be Wakanda, creating a host of interesting mutants. The meteor triggers a floral mutation the Wakandans call “the heart-shaped herb,” which becomes a performance-enhancing drug when ingested, and the source of Black Panthers’ remarkable strength, speed, and agility.

The Black Panther regime uses the threat and technology-development potentials of vibranium to legitimate Wakanda’s creation and subsequent political actions as well as the regime’s monopoly on enhancement. But the Gift’s double-sided sword–ness also justifies the regime’s turning of Wakanda into an encrypted nation, a nation projecting a simulated self in order to dissimulate.

Black Panther offers an excellent platform to discuss two topics related to plausible futures, black political thought, and techno-politics. First, it is an opportunity for STEM boosterism. For instance, at the 2017 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference, Rep. Val Demings chaired a panel titled “Imagining a Bigger World—Marvel’s Black Panther, Cultural Heritage, and STEM” that included a preview of the movie and a discussion of the need to increase the numbers of black American researchers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. It’s hard to pooh-pooh efforts to make Black Panther serve adolescent black girls and boys in a manner that parallels the way the Star Trek franchise has encouraged so many young people to pursue STEM careers in order to better the world.

But the movie will underwrite a more radical, and therefore likely relatively minor, discussion in the world of political futurism. Black Panther challenges Afrofuturists to imagine worlds brimming with thriving black people, applied knowledge production systems free of gross gender biases, and large-scale energy, transport, and food-production systems. Envisioning these futures can help us begin to address gross material black suffering in the present by expanding our political imaginations. The most profound mutant in the movie is neither flora nor fauna, but of the politico-philosophical order: a hybridization of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (founded months after the first appearance of Black Panther in Fantastic Four No. 52), 20th-century techno-politics theorist Lewis Mumford, and visionary black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, who also occasionally wrote fiction in a Afrofuturist precursor style. This mutant’s power is to warp and extend the sense of the possible for those who behold it.

Imagine for a moment that both of these visionary discussions—one encouraging young black children to enter STEM with something more than job prospects in mind, the other pushing for black political thought and action as radical as the CRISPR-Cas9, brain-computer interfaces, or artificial intelligence research fronts we would have those young people join—take hold, in part, thanks to Black Panther. It would be a charming and unexpected indicator of how far we’ve stumbled into the muddied mashed arena of political entertainment and entertaining politics. If a pop cultural work—one underwritten by the planet’s dominant multimedia multinational corporation—can become an instrument that helps black people build desirable, plausible futures near and remote, what else is there to say beyond “excelsior”?

Read more in Slate about Black Panther.