Just Relations: Wakanda forever and the power of ‘Black Panther’

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Letitia Wright in “Black Panther.” | Marvel Studios via AP

By now, we all know the hit film “Black Panther” has struck a collective chord, offering a complex and compassionate rendering of people of African descent through the lens of Afro-futurism.

Afro-futurism, a term coined by scholar Alondra Nelson, describes artistic engagement where people of African descent break free of racialized limitations by creating new possibilities through art, literature, music and film; with people of color as central agents for human flourishing.

These racialized limitations were initially codified by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” – the seminal American movie that created what we know today as standard film language, the closeup, medium shot, wide-angle and quick editing. The film also introduced poisonous cinematic tropes — mythologized stereotypes designed to infect white and black minds with a defective view of black capacity and creativity: the Buck, the Mammy, the Coon, the Uncle Tom and the Tragic Mulatto

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III | Provided photo

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III | Provided photo

Through these tropes, Griffith offered grotesque images that, to this day, still sully the imagination of black children and subconsciously form the foundation of retrograde public policy surrounding voting rights and incarceration.

The Buck character is a physically powerful, hypersexual black man who sought to violate the virtue of southern white women. Thus the heroes of Griffith’s film, the Ku Klux Klan — yes, the KKK were heroes in the film — had to lynch or incarcerate this dangerous black man.

Griffith also offered the Coon – a black male whose sole purpose is to make the audience laugh. Ignorant, lazy and quick-witted, the Coon calms white fears by assuring the audience that there are some black men who are safe and childlike.

The Mammy — a female character often dark complected, overweight, fussy and physically strong – was put in place to protect white interest as she is often seen putting the Coon in his place.

Then there’s the Uncle Tom character, who driven by a need to inform the establishment in Griffith’s film of “uppity” black people who desired to be freed from white control.

And finally the Tragic Mulatto – a light-skinned desirable woman with the unique caveat that she must be saved from her own infantile choices by a white man.

More recently, Hollywood has unleashed another trope: the Magical Negro, whose divine-like calling is to bring enlightenment to the white protagonist’s journey of self-discovery.

One of the reasons “Black Panther” has become such a popular force is because it breaks free and shatters these racially toxic tropes.

Our church, Trinity United Church of Christ, recently took 1,500 people to witness the power of what, on the surface, seems to be a typical comic-book blockbuster. But beneath the surface is a complex tale of Afro-futurism, responsibility to the vulnerable, questions of liberation and the role of women.

We witness people of African descent in the fictional country of Wakanda not through the lens of suffering but as complex characters seeking answers to universal questions.

We witness King T’Challa leaning on a council of women. These women are not tropes who must be saved by a man or a bizarre, exaggerated stereotype borrowed from Griffith’s destructive model.

These are the images I want my daughter to witness and my son to digest. I want my daughter to envision being a Shuri, a brilliant, self-assured scientist; or a reflective, committed, humble and strong military leader like Okoye. I want my son to value the gifts of women who bring brilliance, leadership and insight to the community.

The finest moment in the film is the interplay between Michael B. Jordan’s so-called villain, Eric Killmonger, and Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa.

Killmonger embodies all of the heartbreak, passion and rage of black injustice. He is a product of American exploitation and Wakanda’s indifference to his plight. He is a deeply wounded, yet brilliant, man yearning for Wakanda, while simultaneously hearing the cries of his people.

Despite their differences, T’Challa and Killmonger are deeply connected, each offering a piece of the puzzle of what it means to be a servant and leader to a people privileged and to those oppressed. The film challenges the viewer, black people in particular, not to choose between Killmonger and T’Challa but to find a way to integrate both into our hearts.

Our community joined in the celebration of the film – not just to wear African garb – but to use it as an educational platform for our youth. We even created a study guide for families and offer classes on faith and film.

I also preached on the topic “Wakanda,” raising the this critical moral question: How do we take the limits off the imagination of black children in Chicago?

For starters, we need to let children dream and dream big.

To do this, our faith communities must be temples of imagination and possibility where girls and boys can take off the tropes of the world and clothe themselves with the garment of possibility.

This is the power of “Black Panther.”

“Wakanda forever.”

Rev. Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.

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