Marvel’s Black Panther and This Afrofuturist Moment

Is Afrofuturism the new Magical Realism?

"It is a radical act for Black people to imagine having a future" author Nalo Hopkinson recently told the CBC. And yet, here we are in a pivotal moment in the history of black speculative art. Multidisciplinary afro futurist collective The Nest recently released VR short Let This Be A Warning, which explores a future in which a group of Africans have left Earth to create a colony on a distant planet. While people of African descent have always had literary imaginatives like Octavia Butler, and recently organizations like The Nest have come to the fore, this is the first time afrofuturism has shown up on the big screen with a massive budget, a stylized look and A-list stars.

Marvel’s Black Panther is set to reclaim Africa’s style legacy, and black social media is in a frenzy. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who worked on Amistad, Roots and Selma is twice Oscar nominated. “(There were) so many African tribes were an inspiration to me -- the Masai, the Suri tribe, the Northern African Tuareg,” Carter told Forbes. “The oxidized red clay, the vibrant colors of Africa. You can look at these beautiful history books, at what they did, and you can translate it, seamlessly, to a futuristic model.”


The costumes blend African, Western ancient and futuristic styles. There are references to the costume of Nigerian chiefs: Victorian ruffles and kente cloth, among others. Ruth Carter grew up with five brothers, and thus is fluent in the visual language of comic books. Her aesthetic motivation, aside from T’Challa of the comic books, was Afrofuturism, Afropunk and the question of expressing an African country that was never colonized, that had kept ownership of its mineral wealth. The film’s style involves heavy use of blacks, greens and purples -- a signal of Wakandan royalty – also: neck rings, beaded tabards, shoulder mantles and Zulu-inspired symmetrical hats as well as metals, namely vibranium, the fictional country’s national resource and cash crop.

The highly anticipated film marks the peak Afrofuturism, a hymn to the fictional futurist African nation of Wakanda. The Afrofuturism that features so profoundly in the Marvel's Black Panther trailers has also shown up on the red carpet around the world with celebrities heavily referencing traditional African costume. The so-called “purple carpet” at Marvel’s Black Panther premiere doubled as a fashion show. “The stars came in oozing royalty vibes, from tribal patterns to vibrant colors, each look is a must see,” says USMagazine. “The movie itself is right at the cusp of fashion, art and culture,” The Daily Nation notes.

But what exactly is Afrofuturism?

“Afrofuturism is a way of looking at the future — or alternate realities — which references African cultures or cultures in the African diaspora,” writer and filmmaker Ytash Womack told Polygon. “It is [an] intersection between black culture, the imagination, liberation, technology and mysticism. You see it a lot in art, artistic visions, artistic aesthetics; but it’s also a way of looking at the world as well.”

Movements anticipate their own backlash. The Euro American based alt-right, haters of all things racially diverse, had something to say about all this afrofuturist excitement. Facebook this week took down the group “Down-With-Disneys-Treatment-of-Franchises-and-its- Fanboys,” an alt right group which was drawing thousands of viewers. Their plan was to lower the overall score of Black Panther on Rotten Tomatoes. The group, protesting a diverse cast, did the same stung to the notably diverse The Last Jedi in December. “So they would like us to believe that this campaign was part of some perverse war against Disney?” writes The Root. “But I think we all know why Black Panther was targeted.”

But that reasoning is absurd. "Wakanda" – that idealized afrofuturist nation – has an isolationist foreign policy. That isolationism helped it avoid colonialism, and thus become a global power. Isolationism, one cannot fail to note, is the chief foreign policy aim of the alt right. In other words, the alt right is attacking a movie that portrays in a positive light their chief foreign policy goals!

The opening is looking to be a record breaking moment in the history of film. Wakanda’s afro futuristic greatness comes from the fact that it is unconquered. The unconquered nature of Wakanda is a point of pride for afrofuturists – for further reference see: black Twitter -- and a point of contention to the alt right. The beginning of the international press tour for Black Panther began in Asia, in Seoul and has slowly rolled out globally. Everywhere it has premiered, it has been a major media event, culturally, film and fashion wise.

It is bound to be a film as controversial as it is empowering.

Stay tuned.