As Black History Month wraps up, we look at the record-breaking movie Black Panther. Since the release of Black Panther earlier this month, fans have crowdfunded campaigns to ensure children can see the film in theaters, teachers have incorporated the movie’s core themes of anti-colonialism and cultural representation into their curriculum, and activists have used film screenings to hold mass voter registration drives. The movie has also renewed calls for the release of more than a dozen imprisoned members of the real Black Panther Party. Black Panther has also ignited a firestorm of impassioned social commentary online among fans and detractors alike. We speak to historian Robyn C. Spencer, who wrote a piece, “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda,” and Carvell Wallace, whose piece, “Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As Black History Month wraps up, we turn now to a film that is making history as we speak. That’s right, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the record-breaking blockbuster film Black Panther. The movie has captivated global audiences, has raked in more than $750 million, just in the first two weeks of the release. Black Panther had the highest — fifth-highest-earning opening weekend of any film in U.S. history and has already become the single highest-grossing film ever by a black director, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler. It’s also the biggest February film debut of all time. The superhero flick, based on the Marvel comic, features a majority-black cast, has been called a “defining moment for Black America.” This is part of the trailer for Black Panther.
EVERETT K. ROSS: [played by Martin Freeman] I have seen gods fly. I’ve seen men build weapons that I couldn’t even imagine. I’ve seen aliens drop from the sky. But I have never seen anything like this. How much more are you hiding?
OKOYE: [played by Danai Gurira] We are home.
RAMONDA: [played by Angela Bassett] My son, it is your time.
NAKIA: [played by Lupita Nyong’o] You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Since the release of Black Panther earlier this month, fans have crowdfunded campaigns to ensure children can see the film in theaters, teachers have incorporated the movie’s core themes of anti-colonialism and cultural representation into their curriculum, activists have used film screenings to hold mass voter registration drives. The movie has also renewed calls for the release of more than a dozen imprisoned members of the real Black Panther Party.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have signed on to a petition calling on Disney to invest 25 percent of the film’s worldwide profits in education programs in black communities. So far, Disney just announced they’re donating a fraction of that, a million dollars, to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to help expand its youth STEM — that’s science, technology, engineering and math — programs.
Black Panther has also ignited a firestorm of impassioned social commentary online among fans and detractors alike. The film generated so much buzz, it was reportedly one of the most tweeted-about films of 2017, despite not even opening until 2018. Back in December, a video went viral of two African-American men at a movie theater standing in front of the Black Panther movie poster.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: What? All the time?
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: So, we’re sitting here looking at this dope-[bleep] Black Panther poster. And the conclusion that we have come to —
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time?
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: — is that this is what white people get to feel all the time.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time! All the time!
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: Since the beginning of cinema —
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: All the time!
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 2: — you get to feel empowered like this and represented.
AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN 1: This? This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests to talk about Black Panther and its enduring significance. We’re joined right now by historian Robyn C. Spencer, writer Carvell Wallace and professor Christopher Lebron, who have all written extensive pieces. Robyn C. Spencer is a historian and author of, oh, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Her new piece piece is headlined “Black Feminist Meditations on the Women of Wakanda.” And Carvell Wallace is a writer and author of The New York Times Magazine story, “Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America.”
Carvell, let’s begin with you, and we’ll also be joined by Christopher Lebron in Baltimore, professor at Johns Hopkins University. Lay out the story of Black Panther.
CARVELL WALLACE: Well, the story — the kind of narrative fiction background is that there is an African nation named Wakanda that was the recipient of a meteor that landed some many millennia ago, that contains a precious and incredibly strong metal called vibranium. And because of this metal, this country, being largely in sole possession of it, has advanced technologically, personally, artistically, militaristically, in a way that far outstrips the rest of the world. But they’ve kept this power under wraps. They’ve kept it hidden from the Western world because they don’t want their resources snatched by colonialization. And so they pretend to be this kind of like agrarian African nation that mysteriously doesn’t take any loans from the rest of the world, but that doesn’t really sort of get involved. So they’re an isolationist nation. But underneath that, they’ve been able to create this incredible power. The story begins with the warrior king named T’Challa, who is the alter ego of Black Panther, essentially confronting a situation in which he has to make a decision about whether or not to confront the world and open up his resources to the world, and defend his people from the colonialists who have discovered it.
AMY GOODMAN: And the whole part of the Marvel Comics series, what this has to do with that, where this all came from, for people who aren’t part of that comic culture?
CARVELL WALLACE: Yeah, so, in 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther character, and the character has gone through several runs, written by a lot of different authors and illustrators. The most recent run, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, the run that went, I guess, from 2013, ’14, until 2016. And that’s sort of what led to the creation of the film.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk, Robyn Spencer, about the significance of going to this movie with your 12-year-old daughter.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Yes, yes. It was amazing. It was an amazing experience for me to listen to her reactions and responses as she watched the film. She marveled at the African-American women and the African women, how they were portrayed, their strength, just the sheer number and volume of women that appeared, the diversity in character, and also just the beauty that was celebrated that was so different from what we oftentimes see in mainstream depictions of black women’s beauty. So, for her, it was a really transformative moment to sort of be there and take in not just the film, but for it to be a film that was so widely celebrated. It wasn’t just us in an independent movie theater somewhere. It was everyone, dressed up, singing, dancing, enjoying. So it was a real experience for her.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from the film. Princess Shuri is the little sister of T’Challa, the king of Wakanda. She’s also the chief technology officer, responsible for creating much of the country’s tech innovations. In this scene, she drives a car remotely from Wakanda, that the Black Panther is riding on in South Korea as he’s being chased.
T’CHALLA: [played by Chadwick Boseman] Shuri!
SHURI: [played by Letitia Wright] Yes! Yes! Yes!
COMPUTER: Remote driving system activated.
SHURI: Wait. Which side of the road is it?
T’CHALLA: For Bast’s sake, just drive!
SHURI: OK, calm down. Woo! Let’s go! Hey, look at your suit. You’ve been taking bullets, charging it up with kinetic energy.
T’CHALLA: Pull around the truck.
DRIVER: Where’d he go?
SHURI: Show off.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that scene, Robyn Spencer. I mean, this is Letitia Wright who’s playing Shuri. And the star power of this film, from the women to the men, is, you know, across the board, quite amazing.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Yes. I mean, it was very amazing to sort of see women positioned as powerful, as visionary, as intellectuals, in the film, in order to think about — just the younger sister Shuri being the intellectual center and core of Wakanda, I think, was very, very — a difference that we have not oftentimes seen, despite the fact that we had films like Hidden Figures that sort of allowed us to see this long history of black women’s intellectual contributions. But to have that embodied in, you know, a reverent, relatable young woman was truly amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the other roles of women. I mean, there’s the women army. There’s — take it from there.
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Right. So, the film depicts several women characters in powerful roles, so you have one of the main characters, Nakia, which is played by Lupita Nyong’o, which is really a character who has not received, I think, the type of attention that I would like to see. I think that that character really represents an alternative ideological vision for Wakanda. So, that character is a spy who goes around the world, who kind of challenges the isolationist practices of Wakanda by taking their resources, their strength, their military prowess, and using that to assist in areas of the world that need that kind of assistance. Of course, you have Shuri, who is the younger sister of the main character, T’Challa, and she represents, again, the sort of ideological center of the film. And because of her scientific and mathematical knowledge, she’s able to really power almost all of the innovation that we see.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Nakia, the spy you were talking about, who — discussing their roles as women warriors in Black Panther.
DANAI GURIRA: The Dora Milaje are women who pledged their lives to the throne and to the security of the kingdom.
OKOYE: [played by Danai Gurira] Wakanda forever!
DANAI GURIRA: My character, Okoye, is the general of the armed forces as a whole.
LUPITA NYONG’O: Okoye represents the old guard and tradition, while my character, Nakia, challenges tradition.
NAKIA: [played by Lupita Nyong’o] You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.
LUPITA NYONG’O: Nakia was born to be a warrior. She was born with a warrior spirit.
NAKIA: I got into a disagreement, made a bit of a mess.
DANAI GURIRA: Training was very, very interesting. The Dora have a way of fighting that was supposed to be inspired by moving as one. The Dora work together to take down somebody, like the fight we have with Killmonger.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o discussing their roles in Black Panther. Your thoughts, Robyn Spencer?
ROBYN C. SPENCER: Definitely. I mean, Okoye, I think, was a breakout star in the film. I think, really, to see the power of women and to see it be a collective power and the type of leadership that was exercised was truly amazing. And they were visually stunning, to just observe these women with closely cropped hair, powerfully challenging and protecting. Women as protectors, I think, is not something that we oftentimes see.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. In addition to writer Carvell Wallace and historian Robyn C. Spencer, we’ll be joined by Johns Hopkins professor Christopher Lebron, who writes that — well, this is not the movie that — the piece he wrote in the Boston Review, “‘Black Panther’ Is Not the Film We Deserve.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar, from the soundtrack of Black Panther.