Is "Black Panther" the first real "black science fiction film"?

Scholar Adilifu Nama on the film's "radical" aesthetic, and whether white folks should watch it as a "foreign film"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 16, 2018 7:00PM (EST)

Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in "Black Panther" (Marvel Studios)
Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in "Black Panther" (Marvel Studios)

One of the most eagerly anticipated Hollywood movies of recent years, Marvel's "Black Panther" turns out to be a fun, intelligent and politically provocative experience. It's a welcome addition to the Marvel universe that pushes at the outer edges of the superhero genre and, more importantly, offers a humane and welcoming embrace of the complex identities that comprise the Black Atlantic.

Make no mistake, "Black Panther" is the product of a multibillion-dollar, corporate-culture juggernaut. But director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (previously the director of "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station") still offers -- albeit problematically -- a symbolic intervention against the white supremacist politics that are now resurgent in America and much of Europe. Ultimately, celebrating the value of black people's humanity, genius and dignity is still a radical act, in America and many other parts of the world. In that regard. "Black Panther" succeeds fabulously.

Effectively recognizing the deep tensions that exist between the various black ethnic groups and nationalities of the Black Diaspora, while remaining within the constraints of a Hollywood film, is not an easy task. Hopefully, "Black Panther" will spark serious discussions about the global color line that go beyond the limitations of a finely tuned commercial product that exists under the umbrella of the superhero film genre and neoliberal multiculturalism.

In an effort to explore these issues and the broader cultural politics of "Black Panther," I spoke with Adilifu Nama. He is a professor of African American studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of the 2011 book "Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is always available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

Did you ever think you’d see a Black Panther movie?

Actually, I did. It was almost inevitable given the popularity that comic book films are now enjoying. I thought Black Panther was probably more screen-ready than Luke Cage or Black Lightning.

Depending on a person's age, this movie can be understood as being a revelation. But for younger people, who grew up in a neoliberal, multicultural era where "diversity" is marketed and sold, seeing a black superhero on screen may not be as much of a surprise.

Your comments about this generation living in a type of multicultural and multiracial environment are very astute. We should also include how there is now a generation of people who have a reference point for a black president of the United States. If we add to that the ubiquitous presence of hip-hop, blackness permeates American popular culture. Regardless of that type of recognition, this younger generation of folks -- let’s say under 25 -- have lived in an era where science fiction film as a genre is very dominant. For all intents and purposes, I would argue that the "Black Panther" film resonates more as science fiction than it does just as a comic book movie.

This film, I would argue, is the definitive black science fiction film and in many ways the first. There is something radical and revolutionary about the aesthetic being expressed through a science fiction film. Moreover, given America's present political context and heightened tensions around race, when we talk about Black Lives Matter, "Black Panther" truly resonates.

How do you think Black Panther is going to play in red-state America? And how do you think Donald Trump will respond to it? Is this a film he’s going to screen at the White House?

No. For people who have a very constricted, narrow notion of what black people are and can be, this movie obliterates those types of racial restrictions. Now, what might occur is that white racial reactionaries may see "Black Panther" as being laughable, a fantasy state of an African nation that they want to argue does not exist and never will. It is very similar to what happened with [the original film] "Planet of the Apes" in 1966. That film became a recruiting tool for skinheads and neo-Nazis, who used it as a recruiting tool by saying that it depicted what would happen to whites if black people took political and cultural power. I don’t anticipate that "Black Panther" is going to be screened at the White House. But if it was, it wouldn’t necessarily mean for Trump and his inner circle what it means for us.

For people who are not familiar with Black Panther, who is the character, and why does he matter?

Black Panther is T'Challa, the prince-king of the African nation of Wakanda in the Marvel comic book universe. He emerges in 1966 as the Black Panther when he challenges the Fantastic Four to a series of battles in order to test his own skills and his own technology. These battles help him affirm his ability to go against his local nemesis, Ulysses Klaue, who has been a threat to the Wakandan nation because of its vibranium -- its source of power and energy. Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the [comic book] series today.

How was the character received at the time? Was he treated as a throwaway black character representing the Black Power and broader civil rights moments? Or was he treated with more respect?

The character was somewhat arrogant and was not a person to be underestimated. The weight and power of the Black Panther series and character is the backdrop of the civil rights and Black Power movement. This compelled two white men [Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character's original creators] to try to imagine and, most importantly, to reimagine blackness in a superhero fantasy world. This is a profound statement about the power of the black freedom movement. It not only changed policies, it forced segments of our population and America's collective popular consciousness to reimagine how black people could be depicted. "Black Panther" is in many ways a manifestation of the black freedom movement on the screen.

There has been a predictable response by white supremacists and other conservatives that this movie is some kind of "black KKK" fantasy, that it is somehow unfair and "discriminates" against whites because black people are central to the story. How would you respond?

I think the deranged criticism expressed by those with that type of pathological racial sickness might be helped if they go see "Black Panther" and tell themselves that it is a foreign film. I think that will maybe alleviate some of the arguments that someone with that sickness would make. You don’t go to a Japanese film festival and complain about, "Hey, I don’t see any people speaking English." You don’t go to a French film festival and complain, "Hey, there is no one over here speaking Japanese." In other words, you expect to see what you see because that is the nature of it. The film is about Wakanda, its politics, trials and tribulations. In many ways it is a more international film than it is a black American film, or an African-American film.

You have seen the movie. Is "Black Panther" as good as the critics and other reviews are reporting?

I think so. "Black Panther's" representation of black women is also really impressive. There’s a lot of black-girl magic in this film. Black women are funny, dynamic, interesting, sensitive and brave. The black women in the movie also have competing interests in how they’re going to achieve their goals and the types of decisions they will be forced to make.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega