Lupita Nyong’o was in for a surprise when tickets went on sale for “Black Panther” in January. “It occurred to me — I should get tickets too,” she said in a triumphant Twitter video posted Jan. 10, sounding both shocked and slightly giddy. “I kid you not, 15 minutes later — 15 minutes later! — I was trying to purchase tickets, and they are sold out. Sold out!” A month later, that clip alone has been viewed 121,000 times.
The Nyong’o video is yet another data point proving how “Black Panther” has inspired a frenzied public reaction with every step of its aggressive, infectious marketing campaign. When news broke in 2016 that Michael B. Jordan, Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira were joining the cast alongside star Chadwick Boseman, the Twittersphere erupted with praise linked by the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit. When the film’s rapturous first reviews were released, the website BlackGirlNerds.com responded by launching the hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe; as it trended, celebrities and comic book fans alike began to chime in with personal accounts of the film’s significance to them.
Even the film achieving a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and when that perfect score was subsequently tainted by its first negative review — was deemed headline-worthy. Days before its release, “Black Panther” is already the most tweeted-about movie of 2018; at times, it seems that the entire global black community has formed a personal connection to the film sight unseen.
And that’s understandable because, in a lot of ways, “Black Panther” isn’t just a movie. It’s an event, a milestone, a movement “about what it means to be black in both America and Africa — and, more broadly, in the world,” as journalist Jamil Smith wrote in a recent cover story for Time magazine. Black moviegoers read these words and celebrate — but some, like myself, can also feel anxious thoughts taking hold. Will the movie itself hold up to its massive hype? Even if it is as spectacular as it looks, will “Black Panther” be our only shot at seeing a mainstream black superhero story that puts racial issues in the foreground?
And what about the racist trolls who are actively rooting for the film to fail?
Because even as the hype machine reaches its crescendo, a subtle hum of dissonance is also rising. Racists masquerading as comic book fans are rallying others to attack a film that dares to celebrate black people. On the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page, commenters who have not seen anything beyond the trailer are already voicing their displeasure: “Affirmative Action: The Movie,” one complained. “No thanks. I have no interest in PC Politics,” wrote another. And even moviegoers who don’t self-identify as white supremacists might be put off by the film’s political sentiments — despite the visuals, performances, and unflinching storytelling that have critics swooning.
Neither Stan Lee nor Jack Kirby could have envisioned this future for T’Challa when they introduced him in 1966, as a supporting character in “Fantastic Four” — in a story that “simultaneously reinforces the very same stereotypes and value judgements the Black Panther was supposed to dispel,” as Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse wrote in 2016. The character evolved from ensemble player to star in his own right over the decades, reaching new heights when Christopher Priest began writing his story in the 90s. Priest’s Black Panther was part urban vigilante story, part political thriller — Marvel’s answer to Batman. In more recent years, highly lauded black writers like Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates have taken turns dreaming up new adventures for the hero and his friends.
Comics writer and film director Reginald Hudlin, who had his own storied “Black Panther” run in the ’00s, hoped to kickstart a Black Panther movie in that decade — but eventually abandoned the project due to disappointing scripts, which were “everything the [‘Black Panther’] movie should not be.” More specifically: “They were all awful,” he told the Washington Post this month.
And then came this project, a splashy, big-budget adaptation oozing with A-list talent — first announced in 2014, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. At the time, its advent felt like an extension of Obama’s “audacity of hope” — the swelling optimism he represented, the possibilities of a much-touted post-racial America. As “Black Panther” actually arrives in theaters, of course, the political paradigm has shifted. Those old fantasies now smack of hubris — and, perhaps, serve as a harsh reminder of the consequences of overinflated hype.
When Obama was president, Wakanda — a rich African nation never subjected to the yoke of colonialism — seemed like a goal. Now it serves as a hazy beacon of what could have been. The film’s optimistic ideals sit side by side with a visually striking rebuttal of white supremacy, complete with all the swagger a Kendrick Lamar-penned soundtrack demands. Rather than imagining a world where race doesn’t matter, “Black Panther” doesn’t pull punches about exploring the politics of what it means to be black — especially when its militant villain, Eric Killmonger (Jordan), is talking. While examining African artifacts at a museum, Killmonger jokes that he has no problem taking them off the curator’s hands. “I mean did you ask for these?’ he quips. “No, you just took them.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the film inspired both social media frenzy and a racist uproar long before arriving on theater screens. It’s a movie in which the trials, triumphs, and contradictions of the black experience finally take center stage, in a context where that very act seems newly revolutionary; that’s what’s fueling the tweets and ticket sales and “Black Panther” viewing parties and fan art recreations. This same undercurrent sends chills down the spines of white supremacists, moving them to attack.
Despite all this, director Ryan Coogler seems undaunted by the hype — and the trolls. “For me, I’m looking forward to everybody seeing the film,” Coogler told HuffPost earlier this month. “I’m really looking forward to sharing the film with audiences regardless of what their political views are…that’s kind of where I [stand on that].” Many of the film’s black fans also don’t seem to care much about whether white audiences will embrace this story, or even about the forces seeking to destroy it.
Instead, they are too busy reveling in the moment. An epic saga that spotlights black faces is about to take Hollywood’s biggest stage — a story about a wealthy, technologically advanced African nation that has resisted colonialism and thrived. The power of that idea cannot be understated, no matter what happens when the film itself finally starts playing.