Black Panther Is the Most Important Movie of 2018

I’m Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.

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When I was 7, 8, 9… my prime comic book years, the store in my neighborhood that sold comics did NOT have the best selection.

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You had your Batman, your Superman, your Spider-Man… Archie.

Seeing someone who looked like me didn’t really feel like an option.

And that didn’t even feel weird. Most people I knew hadn’t heard of Sri Lanka, the country my parents were from.


Most people I knew couldn’t even say my last name.

So it felt pretty normal to dream of being… a white guy.

My brother wanted to be Batman.

   

So I was left wanting to be Spiderman.

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Anyway, fast-forward a couple of decades.

It feels like there’s a new superhero movie every other week.  

I’m not holding my breath for a big South Asian superhero movie.

But it sure is nice to finally see Black Panther.

<CLIP> T’Challa: The black panther has been the protector of Wakanda for generations. A mantle passed from warrior to warrior. Now because your friend murdered my father, I also wear the mantle of king.

 

Black Panther already feels like the most important movie of the year.

To understand why, you have to understand who Black Panther is...

<CLIP> Captain America Civil War: “Your highness.”

Under the Black Panther mask is T’Challa --  king of a fictional African nation called Wakanda.

<CLIP> CLAW: Tell me something… what do you know about Wakanda?

Wakanda is the most advanced country in the world thanks to this crazy fictional supermetal called vibranium.

<CLIP> Captain America: vibranium.

It powers their trains, it powers their weapons, and its the special sauce in Black Panther’s superhero suit.

Despite all of its sophistication, Wakanda keeps a low profile. Most people don’t even know it exists. As a result, no slave trade, no colonialism, just this dream of black excellence.

Black Panther shows up for just a few scenes in Captain America Civil war. But you know when an exciting new superhero shows up for a few scenes in a Marvel movie, big things ahead…

Just one year later, we had trailer for a standalone Black Panther movie. 

        

<CLIP> Black Panther Trailer

For some fans, seeing the poster, just the poster… was almost too much to take.

<CLIP> Ava DuVernay: This is what white people get to feel all the time.

Voice: All the time! All the Time!

Ava DuVernay: Since the beginning of cinema, you get to feel empowered like this and represented.

Voice: This? This what y’all feel like all the time? I would love this country too!

Before Black Panther even came out, it felt like a game changer.  

But if there were any doubts… this weekend drove the point home: representation matters. And it’s good for business.

[TAPE: TIFFANY: Welcome! Welcome!]

People were dressing up to go see this movie.

        

[TAPE: TERRANCE: I’m actually wearing a dashiki and she’s wearing a matching skirt that I had made down on 125th street in Harlem.]


People were renting out entire theaters for private screenings.

[TAPE:
BERNICE: It’s a whole room full of gorgeous black people right now.

SEAN: A couple of white people, too!
BERNICE: And a couple of white people!]

People were celebrating their major life events at Black Panther.

[TAPE: I’m Terrance. This is Tiffany. This is our engagement party.]

I went to the Alpine Cinemas in Brooklyn the night Black Panther opened.

Terrance and Tiffany seemed more excited about the movie than their own marriage.

[TAPE:
SEAN: Is there a chance it doesn’t meet your expectations?

TERRANCE: No chance.
TIFFANY: None whatsoever. I believe in it. I
’ve always been a fan of Chadwick Boseman. I’ve actually got a crush on him since he was on “Lincoln Heights.”

SEAN: I’m sorry to hear that.
TERRANCE: That’s cool. That’s cool. She knows about me and Rihanna. Rihanna don’t know about me and Rihanna, but she knows about me and Rihanna, so….
TIFFANY: Our family is here. Our friends are here. Our co-workers that support us and

our black love. So that’s what it is.

TERRANCE: Yeah. What she said. Pretty much on point.

*both laugh*

[TAPE: MOVIE STARTS]

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more rapturous movie theater than Terrance and Tiffany’s Black Panther screening. People were laughing, yelling, crying.

And it wasn’t the kids in the theater freaking out. It was their parents -- the ones who grew up wishing they could see themselves saving the world.

Black Panther made a ton of money over the weekend -- over 200 million dollars.

It broke all sorts of records,
 including the biggest long weekend haul ever.

 

Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack is the number one album in the country.

Michelle Obama endorsed the movie on Twitter:

CHRISTINA: Congrats to the entire #blackpanther team! Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.

So what took so long? Why were there three Iron Mans, six Spider-Mans, and an Ant-Man movie before this?

I ask the guy who’s writing the Black Panther comics right now after the break.

This is Today, Explained.  

[MIDROLL]

I’m Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.

So yeah, we know that Black Panther is more than just another comic book movie, but what took so long to make it?

SEAN: If you were a superhero, what would you call yourself and what would

your power be?

EVAN: Oh, man… uhh… “the Haitian Sensation.”

SEAN: *laughs*

EVAN: … probably superspeed.

Evan Narcisse is a Black Panther fan going wayyyy way back.

EVAN: Probably… nine or ten years old?

Now, he’s a grown-up and writes about comic books for io9.

EVAN: … and I’m also writing “Rise of the Black Panther” for Marvel Comics.

So, he seemed like the right person to ask what makes this particular story and character and movie so gosh darn important.  

EVAN:         You know, Sean, I’m almost genetically engineered for this moment,

right?

SEAN: *laughs*

EVAN: This movie like hit me so hard. I wept the first time I saw it. And I wept to

probably exponentially more. The last time I saw it. it's very personal. It's very metaphorical. It feels like a big slice of myth and Shakespeare and blackness all layered on top of each other. I had high expectations that I tried to temper and it exceeded those expectations. There's one character called in M’Baku who in the comics is a super villain called man-ape and he's played by Winston Duke. I was lucky enough to go to the Premier in L.A. and I talked to him after the movie. I was like you know growing up we used to make fun of this cat, like he was a clown.

<CLIP> Come Black Panther and face the Man-ape!

EVAN: And I said nobody’s going to do that now. No one's gonna laugh at this character now. And that's by virtue of his performance and the way that Ryan Coogler and Joel Robert Cole the other guy who wrote the screenplay conceptualized his character. They knew that yes, there's a history of stereotypes. Calling the black guy an ape. So let's not do that and furthermore let's make this guy ideologically sound in terms of his argument and the plot they radically reinterpret these characters in some ways that are better than the comics which pains me to say as the guy who's writing Black Panther comics now. But there's a few things that they do in there and I’m like Damn it! I wish I could've done that.

SEAN: *
laughs* Tell me what made you cry, Evan.
EVAN: Oh man. I mean like literally the first line one which was like a little boy saying, “Baba, tell me a story.”

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EVAN: And then he just starts talking about Wakanda and the history of Wakanda. And you know the thing that the movie does is if you come from somewhere else that is not America if you come from another culture that is not white. And if you feel a longing for that place and your sense of self in that place or your sense of self having to simultaneously exist in two places at once. If you feel any of those things this movie is going to hit you like a ton of bricks.

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SEAN: You talked about the movie being sort of steeped in metaphor and myth? What is Wakanda?  What does it mean?


EVAN: In the real world Wakanda is basically the dream of a black culture of a black people that's never been compromised by white supremacy by colonialism by racism discrimination. And that's a powerful idea that has some historical reference but not on the scale that we see in the movie. It's a space of completely free black agency where you don't have to worry about what looks respectable or palatable or certain standards of beauty.

 

SEAN: Why didn't anyone in this hyper capitalist society think of this 30 years ago? I'm confused.


EVAN: Because there's a bunch of bullshit attitudes and preconceived notions and  “conventional wisdom” about what plays across the world in terms of Hollywood output. And that's you know white people but nothing about the Black Panther is designed to be a repudiation of other groups humanity. It’s primarily a celebration of black humanity. And you know one of the things about black panther that's exhilarating and frustrating at the same time is this is a perfect storm. OK we got Ryan Coogler who's coming off creed. You've got the cast. Chadwick Boseman who's a ridiculous talented performer Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Kaluga, but then you've got older generations of actors like Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett. Like this movie took like a very specific planetary alignment to make happen. And what I want is for the next movie that has similar goals or ideas to not need a perfect storm to happen. You know like this shouldn't be this feat of institutional bravery to put out a movie that has mostly black people in it. Black audiences will show up you know and not black audiences to you know.

 

SEAN: What do you think this movie means to kids. I mean when I was young I saw some lesser black superhero movies. I saw Blankman.

<CLIP> Get ready to rumble!

SEAN: Meteor Man

<CLIP> Meteor Man’s in town!

SEAN: I saw Blade

<CLIP>There are worse things out tonight than vampires… me!

SEAN: I saw Spawn

<CLIP> You sent me to hell Jason, I’m here to return the favor!

 

EVAN: It was a real rough run for a minute there right…

*both laugh*
SEAN: Blade was okay!

SEAN:  I'm wondering like what do you think it'll mean to see you know like this all star cast and in this all star soundtrack and like actually get to go buy toys that are centered around a black hero for kids.

 

EVAN: You get to see the world. You got to change the world.

You know the thing about superheroes is that they're by their very nature they are aspirational. Right. So often these meditations about what human beings can and can't do happen through white faces and to have it happen through black faces is like ridiculously meaningful. Like it's so important to have a villain who's like semi sympathetic charismatic and compelling and a black guy and have him pit off against the hero that is compassionate clever and in a loving relationship with his sister and mom and have these huge stakes be part of it too.

 

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EVAN: It let’s you know you can change other people's lives for the better. Like that's important messaging to experience from kids of any group, any background. Black kids so rarely get that directly beamed right at their heads and their hearts and that's what's really important about this movie.


Evan Narcisse writes the comic book series “Rise of the Black Panther” for Marvel.

Shouts to Keisha “TK” Dutes for inviting me to her friends’ engagement party in Brooklyn.

And to Vox’s Christina Animashaun for lending her voice to today’s episode.

I’m Sean Rameswaram. This is Today, Explained.

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