I went to see Black Panther this past Friday with my extraordinary and insightful wife of 14 years. As we pulled up to the theater and found a parking spot, we had an interesting exchange before going in. It had to do with perception, assumption, and judgement.
In our two decades of knowing one another – which includes 3 years of dating before getting married – one constant annoyance for us has been the misperception that we are an “interracial couple”. That is, in the commonly accepted sense of the phrase. The reason this is significant is because, at first glance, no one would know – and some may not believe – that my wife is, without question, African American. She is no LESS African American than I am, even though to many I more readily… look the part.
It is common knowledge that the spectrum of African American complexions is wide-ranging, making it nearly impossible for someone to look at anyone else these days and deduce with any certainty that they are, or are not, “black”.
You don’t know, so don’t assume.
But assumption is the recurring theme of our public interactions with people who look askance at the “interracial couple” going to see the “black” movie. Never realizing the two of us are far more alike than we are different. Despite the apparent difference in our skin tones. The truth is that the evidence of who we are, who we really are, cannot be ascertained from a glance. Much like the truth of this movie’s significance can’t be defined by the opinions of professional (or unprofessional) critics.
See, within that truth lies the beauty of what it really means to be… African American. Within that truth is the careful, deliberate, often meticulous navigation through society that takes place daily for every African American, regardless of their shade. Within that truth is also the reason why, after watching Black Panther, this movie, this work of fiction, this stylized drama… why it is a watershed moment.
Let me be clear that I fully understand that this is a “super hero” movie. It is a live-action, film adaptation of a comic book, and as such, has no bearing on real-life events. That being said, my head and heart were all over the place.
There are several reasons. Far too many to fully convey here. But I will attempt to pinpoint the larger one in the context of my feelings.
Wakanda is a country unspoiled. Unsullied by the invasion – or colonization, as the characters point out – of those who would trample its rich culture, prohibit the expression of its traditions, exploit its resources, and enslave its people. Simply put, Wakanda was free to evolve into a highly developed, technologically advanced civilization, while retaining all of its history, customs and beliefs.
For those of African heritage, nothing like this exists in the real world.
To this day, many African nations are considered third world countries. This label typically refers to economically poor, non-industrialized nations who are often reliant upon foreign aid. But seeing Wakanda on the big screen was like a glimpse into an alternate reality. Even stripping away all of its supernatural elements, it stands as a future that could have been. Could have.
But… it isn’t.
For me, segments of the movie stood out as an extended expedition into an incredibly complex and engaging world established through tribal unity, ingenuity, and intellect. It was the answer to the nagging question… what if? What if there was no slavery? What if there was no colonization of Africa? What if there was no systemic racism? This is Wakanda!
But… it isn’t.
Or rather, it never was, and maybe it will never be. And that… that is heartbreaking.
Because it has nothing to do with the lack of supernatural intervention, or the existence of Vibranium. It has everything to do with systemic racism, the deterioration and intentional disruption of the black family unit… the lack of community awareness and concern as a country, not just isolated pockets of effective collaboration … and a society that seems to have lost its compassion and consideration for others.
Wakanda then becomes a sad reminder of unrealized potential, all that has been stolen, and what now feels unobtainable.
But… it isn’t.
Even without vibranium, the technological marvels of Wakanda are not completely fictional. The unique customs, arts, and social institutions exemplified in the movie are very real. We now have a space and an opportunity to discuss errors of the past and make corrections for the future.
There may be some who think that what I’ve said and what I’ve seen… that it’s simply too late for us.
But… it isn’t.