Marvel’s Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon, a historic box office success that’s brought in rave reviews and sparked conversation all over social media and traditional media alike. There are no signs of the excitement abating, either, as the conversation about the film has evolved from discussions about the importance of representation into something grander: a rather groundbreaking celebration of black culture.
With an all-star collection of majority black talent both in front of and behind the camera, Black Panther, under the direction of Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), is about more than the latest superhero’s journey; it’s also about black culture’s journey, and it points toward a future where it could be the culture. It acknowledges and celebrates everything from traditional African society to African-American political debates, from the power and beauty of black women to the preservation of identity, all within the lush confines of the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
All told, Black Panther’s greatest legacy may not be what it’s done for Marvel, Hollywood, or box office records, but what it’s done for the culture. In Wakanda, which offers much to marvel at for audiences of all backgrounds, black viewers in particular have found a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before.
Black Panther celebrates black culture on several fronts
Black Panther is in many ways a love letter to black culture. Africa has traditionally been an unsophisticated bit player in American media, often portrayed as backward, savage, and chaotic in everything from news coverage to films. It’s a portrayal that has left little room for other interpretations, which is why Black Panther’s vision of Wakanda as a bustling metropolis of vibranium-powered futuristic skyscrapers, racing trains, and soaring spaceships feels so refreshing.
Marvel movies often take place in grand, imaginative locales, like Thor’s Asgard or Guardians of the Galaxy’s far-flung planets. But nothing has been quite as audacious and poignant as Wakanda, a vision of Africa that feels indebted to both Jack Kirby and Octavia Butler, home to a thriving black population that represents our collective ingenuity and beauty. As a testament to black empowerment, Black Panther is an important artifact, but it’s also, quite simply, a big draw for black moviegoers starved for this sort of vision.
It’s not just Wakanda’s skyline that makes an impact, though; the film drew on a team of designers and stylists to showcase a very specific, beautiful black aesthetic. In an interview with the New York Times, Camille Friend, who oversaw the various hair designs of what she calls “a totally Afrocentric, natural hair movie,” said the entire production was considered against a backdrop of a bigger black cultural moment: “We’re in a moment when people are feeling empowered about being black,” she says. “The hair helps communicate that.”
Like the film’s hair, Black Panther’s costuming was an opportunity to infuse meaning and pride into the movie. As the film’s head costume designer, Ruth Carter, shared with NPR, the costumes, like Wakanda itself, needed to evoke a place and people that had “never been colonized, one that looked toward the future but was based on a real past.”