If I had to reduce “Black Panther” to a single word, it would be “glorious.” The movie was a first on many fronts: a Marvel blockbuster directed by an African American, Ryan Coogler, and starring a nearly all-black cast led by Chadwick Boseman as the title character King T’Challa (the “Black Panther” himself), Michael B. Jordan as the villain Killmonger, Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the king’s guard and Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the king’s lady love — and the kingdom’s chief spy in the outside world.
This is a movie in which even the film’s secondary roles are star-studded: “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya plays T’Challa’s boyhood friend W’Kabi, “This is Us” star Sterling K. Brown plays the young king’s uncle N’Jobu, Forest Whitaker is the king’s chief advisor and the great Angela Bassett is the Queen Mother. (Not to mention the scene-stealing performances from Winston Duke as the droll and stubborn M'Baku, and Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s tech savvy baby sister Shuri.)
But what’s truly revolutionary about the film is its expansive, breathtaking vision. The costumes evoking African glamour, the brilliant lighting of deep brown skin and the panoramic vistas, plunging waterfalls and vast plains of Wakanda are interspersed with an Afro-futuristic reality powered by the most miraculous substance in the Marvel universe: Vibranium. Here, for one of the first times in Hollywood history, an idyllic, technically advanced and regally organized African society has been boldly and unabashedly depicted on the big screen. This is a society that remains perfect because it has wisely been kept secret from the greed and cruelty of the “colonizers,” as the Wakandans call the people of the West, including the Americans. Wakanda, in short, is the Africa of black dreams.
Tied up in the film is the notion that you can’t go home — that for the descendants of enslaved Africans, the continent of our ancestry is lost to us, and we are lost to it.
Tied up in the film is the notion that you can’t go home — that for the descendants of enslaved Africans, the continent of our ancestry is in fundamental ways lost to us, and we are lost to it. We call ourselves “African American” but most don’t know what tribe, then-kingdom or current country we belong to (commercial DNA services are trying to change that.) Even if we can discover our lineage, it’s much harder to find our true names.
In this context, Wakanda is an example of what could have been for black Americans. It is beautiful, modern, powerful and filled with all of the complexities — the human treachery and weakness and strength and honor — that modern societies must bear, but which are rarely fleshed out in one-dimensional black movie characters.
Contrast Wakanda with the Africa of today, a continent too often depicted in movies and the scant Western news coverage it receives as nothing more than a collection of backward and impoverished nations ruled by corrupt regimes and ripped apart by colonialism and dictatorship; what the current American president called “shithole” countries. Few realize the gleaming cities and rich, vibrant history this vast region holds. (My godmother’s old history books, stacked in her little library in the Bronx, literally take Egypt physically out of Africa.)
Even as the daughter of an African, with a Hausa maiden name, I know only the Congo I see online. My lack of a relationship with my father made visiting there impossible in my youth, and life tends to get in the way — even now. My mother’s family traced our descent from Guyana back to Ghana, but there too, I am lost. And so I drank up Wakanda like a tall, cool drink.
It’s hard not to think of this fictional place and feel wistful — to almost see the beautiful shores and pastoral lands our ancestors glimpsed in the disappearing fog from the holds of slave ships, knowing they would never go home again.
Because we know we can never reclaim them. (And when we’ve tried, as in the slave-owner inspired export of formerly enslaved American and Caribbean blacks to then Monrovia, now Liberia, the results have been decidedly mixed for the indigenous population).
And so what is left for us are the questions. What might the strongest of us — those who survived the ship and the whip and the scorn and the shame of enslavement; the brutality of rape and family separation and common cruelty and 100 years of Jim Crow afterward; the lynching rope and the forced entrance through the back door — built had we remained in Africa?
We wrestle with the question of what Africa might owe to its stolen people, as well as what, if anything, its lost children owe it in return.
There is a twinge of abandonment that comes with being a member of the African Diaspora. But “Black Panther” fearlessly introduces and then complicates this and other deeply held albeit rarely expressed emotions; that indeed is what makes this film so profoundly innovative. In Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, we see what can happen as a result of the years of anger, displacement, and yes, even rage, that comes with displacement at the hands of the slavers and colonizers who destroyed what Africa once had — what we could have had.
Meanwhile in Shuri, we see the infinite possibilities of our girls, who can be, do and invent anything when given the tools, the technological playground and the access to black girl joy. And in Okaye and Nakia we see the fierce beauty, glamor and ass-kicking power of black women. This is the very definition of black excellence.
Finally, in T’Challa, we wrestle with the question of what Africa might owe to its stolen people, as well as what, if anything, its lost children owe it in return.
CORRECTION (Feb. 18, 2018, 8:00 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a "Black Panther" character. It is King T’Challa, not King T'Chala.
Joy-Ann Reid is a political analyst for MSNBC and host of “AM Joy,” which airs Saturdays and Sundays from 10 A.M. ET to noon ET. She is also the author of the book “Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide," and co-editor of “We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barak Obama." Reid was previously the host of “The Reid Report,” and the Managing Editor of theGrio.com.