In the fictional African nation of Wakanda, beads made of “vibranium” heal bullet wounds, and a bulletproof suit absorbs and stores the energy of hostile blows. Levitating trains cruise past vaulting skyscrapers with thatched roofs, as saucer-shaped aircraft carve arcs in the sky.
Wakanda, a fantasy nation that serves as the setting for much of Black Panther, is a vision of an African nation that’s not only unencumbered with a history of colonialism but by a great margin the most technologically advanced country in the world.
The blockbuster superhero film has broken box office records and is predicted to rank in the top-10 grossing superhero releases ever in North America. Black Panther also brings into the spotlight Afrofuturism, which draws on fantastical elements to explore both the history of the African diaspora and imagines a technologically advanced, alternative universe. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, nominated for Best Picture and three other Oscars, also gives a nod to Afrofuturism through a plot in which white people use advanced medical procedures to turn black people into automatons.
For a better understanding of the cultural significance of Afrofuturism (and Black Panther), I spoke with John Jennings, a professor in the media and cultural studies department at the University of California Riverside and co-founder of the Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem. Jennings teaches a course on Afrofuturism, leaning heavily on Get Out.
Jennings, who grew up in Mississippi, was “blown away” by the film.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The term “Afrofuturism,” according to the author Carvell Wallace, writing in the New York Times magazine, “isn’t just the idea that black people will exist in the future, will use technology and science, will travel deep into space. It is the idea that we will have won the future.” How do you define it?
Afrofuturism, to me, is looking to the past, trying to examine it, and try to deal with an unresolved task around race and identity in this country, in the diaspora. It’s also looking to the future. Both of these sides are wrestling. Black Panther is dealing with the now. You can say Afrofuturism is science fiction, but the setting of Black Panther is current day. It’s a parallel universe of: What if slavery didn’t happen?
It’s a mainstream term for this latest iteration of black speculative culture. Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by cultural theorist Mark Dery [in an essay called Black to the Future, part of a collection Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture] to describe the trends of science fiction production and other modes of Afrocentric techno-culture that were being afforded via the burgeoning growth of the World Wide Web.
Since then, it has grown into a unifying mode of cultural production that has seen a huge resurgence in the past 10 years and, yes, Black Panther is a prime example of that renewed interest.
How does the genre intersect with social justice?
The future for black people in America was supposed to be connected to only three spaces: one, the hold of a slave ship; two, the plantation; and three, the grave. The construction of a space of agency, joy, and true freedom has always been the central focus of black speculative culture. As exciting as Black Panther himself is, his light can never be brighter of the idea of Wakanda.
The notion of a black future in our country is still a radical political idea.
In Black Panther, Wakanda appears to be all black. But in the film, other parts of the world, like Los Angeles, experience racial violence. Is part of Wakanda’s success due to the fact that there isn’t any racial strife since the country is homogenous?
Wakanda’s success is due to the fact that it is an unconquered, uncolonized African nation. What happens when that’s allowed to transpire? Other countries, like Ethiopia, have not been conquered directly by European forces — so we do have models.
I also wonder what it means about black spaces that are forced through segregation. After Reconstruction, black towns would pop up because black people were not allowed to mix, not allowed to be part of society. The black towns flourished in the 1920s and then were destroyed by racist mobs.
There was the black Wall Street massacre — the destruction of one of America’s wealthiest black neighborhoods in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. These spaces that are either self-created, to protect borders or resources, or forced to segregated, can flourish because they’re just dealing with themselves, to a certain degree.
There is something to be said about sovereignty and space. Across the world, race and space will always play off each other, they’re indexes of each other.
The Black Panther character predates the political party of the same name. But are the two related? At one point when the Black Panther party was gaining momentum, the character was briefly renamed “Black Leopard.”
Yes, the character predates the party by three months or so. The character was originally going to be called “Coal Tiger.” So it was coincidental that it shared the same name as the political party.
But in the film, they’re not unrelated. Coogler is from the Bay Area, where the Black Panther party was created, and he imprints some of the party ideologies into the film in subtle ways. For instance, the nature of how Wakanda fights is about defense. And the party was originally the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.”
The Black Panther as an animal in the wild does not ever attack directly. But it does defend when it is attacked. If we want peace, and you come at us, we will defend ourselves. That’s referenced in the film. Wakanda is a peaceful nation, but it will defend itself.
There’s artwork in the film by Emory Douglas, who created artwork for the Black Panthers. So Coogler is making a direct connection between some of the radicalized politics around defense of the black body in the ’60s.
I sympathized with Erik Killmonger, the supervillain in Black Panther. His father was from Wakanda, but — for complicated reasons — he was born and grew up in LA. He never really felt like he belonged anywhere. His anger and isolation compel him to return to Wakanda to enact revenge.
He’s an index for African Americans. Every one of us goes to search back and find where our ancestors come from. I just did that. Being from Mississippi, I wondered what part of Africa my descendants were stolen from. (I am mostly West African, but 39 percent European.)
With Killmonger, his voice is the pan-African voice of “Where do I come from?” His body has become a battleground for these tropes. He’s angry and disrupted because of the loss of his heritage. It’s why black Americans say to those in Africa, “Why didn’t you come and find us? Why didn’t you reach out to us? You knew we were over here. Why do you treat us this way?” It’s about not having a space to call your own.
You’ve said the recent uptick in horror films can be attributed to tumultuous events in history — like World War II, 9/11, and, recently, the election of Donald Trump. Could the appeal of Afrofuturism in Black Panther also be linked to current events?
There’s a tension between what you’re told you are and who you know yourself to be. People who were descended from slaves are not immigrants. Your culture, your language, your storytelling — everything is taken from you. You have to figure out a way to negotiate that thing, and Afrofuturism gives us a space for negotiation. Between the unresolved past and the impending, potentially bright, future.
You teach a course on Afrofuturism using the film Get Out. Get Out ends on a fake-out: You think that the protagonist Chris Washington is going to get arrested by the police for the murder of a white character who tried to kill him — but he ends up being fine. But what if Get Out had ended with the police arresting Chris? Does Afrofuturism always have a happy ending?
It’s funny that you mention that — they did shoot that ending. In the director’s cut of Get Out, there’s a version where Washington, [the protagonist, played by Daniel Kaluuya], goes to jail. He strangles [his girlfriend] Rose until she dies. The reason [the director doesn’t choose this ending], of course, is because then Washington becomes what they say he is — the animalistic brute.
I don’t think Afrofuturist stories always have a happy ending. They’re a mode of storytelling that helps us work through issues around race and the technologies of race. Does any story have to have a happy ending? Just because the word “future” is part of “Afrofuturism” doesn’t mean that black people have any notions that the future won’t have bad things occurring. I think that “happy” is very subjective — it’s a joyous notion that an Afrocentricstory even exists at all.
In Morgan Jerkins’s new collection, This Will Be My Undoing, she makes a compelling case that narratives about black Americans don’t often show a full range of humanity. For instance, slaves are universally depicted as passive victims — we hardly ever think of them as laughing. How does Black Panther challenge assumptions about race?
The interiority of those slave narratives — she’s absolutely right. One of the narratives of the slave body is [that they are not human]. That’s what made a Christian nation even capable of having slaves. They abstracted the body, pulled the soul out of the body. “This is a beast, this isn’t a person.” “I need to help this thing.”
It’s very complex, the way we have constructed the ideas, visually, around race. At the end of the day, we’re just talking about a certain amount of melanin in one’s skin.
The women in Black Panther — those beautiful, beautiful, dark-skinned black women — that particular spectrum of beauty is something that’s [not universally accepted] in Africa, in India, in China. People are bleaching their skin to become whiter. It’s very telling that the first millionaire who was a black woman made her money from hair straightening products.
In Black Panther, the optics alone are groundbreaking. This is the kind of stuff we need to fight against on a day-to-day basis.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.