Black Panther and the Civic Imagination

Excerpted from Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, and Gabriel Peters-Lozaro (eds.) Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: A Casebook (New York: New York University Press, Forthcoming)


Many, for example, have described Black Panther, a Marvel-Disney film as movement building. If we want to take these claims seriously and on their own terms, we might identify what imaginative resources Black Panther offers the diverse publics that have gathered around it.  We might thus use the film to illustrate the many different functions the civic imagination performs for us. The idea that such a franchise movie might become a tool for social change is not far fetched: Define American and Fandom Forward developed a study guide around the film which organizations could use to foster discussions about refugees, immigrants, and borders; the Electoral Justice Project organized voter registration drives around film screenings, urging supporters to “Wakanda the vote.”


How do we imagine a better world? Black Panther’s fictional Wakanda provides a vivid contrast to the poverty and hopelessness depicted in Oakland in the film’s opening and closing scenes. Oakland was the setting of director Ryan Coogler’s first film, Fruitvale Station and the birthplace for the Black Panther Party (no direct relation). Interestingly, the conclusion’s agenda for social reform through community schools and health clinics owes much to the Black Panther Party’s original platform. Black Panther envisions an imaginary African nation where black peoples exercise self-determination having no history of colonization, where Africans develop advanced technologies while controlling their natural resources, where traditions persist despite modernization,and where warring tribes have developed practices for resolving conflicts.

How do we imagine the process of change? Killmonger -- the American born terrorist who seeks to take over Wakanda --  is not a villain in a traditional sense: the film has sympathy for his goals, but differs over means. Killmonger’s advocacy for the export of arms to help rebels overturn oppressors inspires Black Panther’s move from isolationism towards diplomacy and social services. Some of the most intense debates around the film have centered around these competing visions of the process of social change.

How do we imagine ourselves as civic agents? T’Challa -- the Black Panther -- undertakes the classic hero’s journey, moving from the young prince to the ruler of his country following the death of his father, taking on new responsibilities, embracing an expanded mission, and learning to make a difference both at a local and a global scale. It is this acceptance of social responsibility that makes the character such a great model for young activists. When, at the end of the film, T’Challa steps up at the United Nations in the face of sniggers and skepticism from other world leaders, he models what it means to demand respect that has not been granted you before, a key theme in the black radical imagination literature. As Gabonese filmmaker Manouchka Labouba explained during an interview for Henry Jenkins and Colin Maclay’s How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast:

I remember…being a kid and female in Africa [that] the superhero that I imagined was a white male…because all of the superheros that I watched back then were white. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, all of them were white… It is important to have a character [like Black Panther] because it gives an opportunity for kids nowadays to imagine their superhero in a different way. [Full interview here}

And even though the film’s producer, Walt Disney Studios, may be seen as a corporate “colonizer” by many critics, the story can nevertheless be appropriated and reconfigured on the ground as a resource that speaks to young people across Africa and around the world.

How do we imagine our social connections with a larger community?  A striking aspect of Black Panther is the range of different conceptions of power, courage, responsibility, wisdom, and knowledge within the Wakandan community. Unlike most superhero sagas, success rests on collective rather than individual action. Consider, for example, the film’s different representations of black women: Nakia, who is on a mission to rescue captive women in Nigeria; Okoye, who experiences conflicting loyalties but remains true to her principles as leader of the royal guard, the Dora Milaje; Shuri, who embodies her society’s technological and scientific advancement; and Ramonda, who carries regal dignity and deep-rooted traditions. These women clash but rally as their country turns outward and becomes a superpower dedicated to a more just distribution of resources.

How do we forge solidarity with others with different experiences than our own? Having developed a stronger Wakandan community, Black Panther joins the Avengers, directing his newly claimed leadership against Thanos and his allies in Infinity War. Here, he fights alongside a Norse god (Thor), a Russian assassin (Black Widow), two World War II veterans (Captain America and Winter Soldier), and a scrawny kid from Queens (Spider-Man), to cite just a few. Each defends a different community, but they join forces against threats so big that they put everything they love at risk.

How do we bring an imaginative dimension to our real world places and spaces? Many Black Panther fans have expressed a desire to visit or even live in Wakanda, because the film’s Afrofuturist fantasy is that powerful. Here, they are not seeking simply the imagined versions of Hogwarts or Pandora being offered by contemporary amusement parks, but a reconfiguration of social relations animated by the shared vision of a better life. USC Ph.D. candidate, Karl Bauman partnered with artist/organizer Ben R. Caldwell to run a community building project which used elements of Afro-futurism to reimagine Los Angeles’ Leimert Park as it might take shape over the next few decades (Jenkins, 2017). The project, Sankofa City, “worked with community participants to define their preferable futures, often tied to local African- American cultural norms and social practices.” Participants deployed practices of world-building and transmedia storytelling to create a vision for their future which could be shared intersubjectively both within and beyond their community.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black sociologist who Marvel hired to reconstruct the Black Panther comic book series in anticipation of the film’s release, spoke for many when he summed up his response: “I didn’t realize how much I needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected” to Africa (Beta, 2018). This description connects Black Panther to a much longer history of what Robin G. Kelly (2002)  calls “Freedom Dreams,” which he describes as “many different cognitive maps of the future” that through the years, have allowed African-Americans to maintain hope in the face of oppressive conditions and continue to struggle for something better: “The most radical art is not protest art, but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” (25) “Freedom Dreams”, in Kelly’s particular formulation of the black radical imagination, “produce a vision that allows us to see beyond our immediate ordeals” (12) “Mother Africa,” Kelly suggests, occupies a central place in those dreams, as a place from which African-Americans have been separated against their wills, as a place to which they hope to be spiritually and culturally reunited. The desire to reimagine Africa as a source of strength for the black community has only intensified in recent years. Black Panther fits within a larger strand of Afro-Futurist art, music, and literature: for example, a generation of science fiction and fantasy writers, many of them with cultural ties to Nigeria -- Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, among others -- are reclaiming African mythology and culture as the inspiration for groundbreaking works of speculative fiction.

Writing for The Atlantic about “The Provocation and Power of Black Panther,” Van R. Newkirk II (2018, 22) explored the ways that the film might fuel the black radical imagination:

Blackness invites speculation. The very idea of a global African diaspora creates the most fertile of grounds for a field of what-ifs. What if European enslavers and colonizers had never ventured into the African continent? More intriguing yet: What if African nations and peoples had successfully rebuffed generations of plunder and theft? What if the Zulu had won the wars against the Voortrekkers and the British, and a confederation of Bantu people had risen up and smashed Belgian rule? What if the Transatlantic children of the mother continent had been allowed to remain, building their empires with the bounties of the cradle of civilization?

Here, Newkirk suggests that young black creators and fans are retracing their roots in order to forge a path forward into the future. In doing so, Newkirk addresses a question Kelly raises early in his book: “What are today’s young activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for?”