Black Panther Transmedia: The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed

Written by Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction of a longer essay published in the Journal for Cinema and Media Studies (2021), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel Comics, 1966).

As Lee states in a 2009 interview:

It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).  

The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):

            You will not be able to stay home, brother.
            You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .

            The revolution will not be televised. . . .
            The revolution will be live.

Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?

Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).

So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Technology as second nature in Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018).

Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).

Figure 3. Black Panther’s science fiction of a nation shielded from global heating.

The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.

For the full article and bibliographic references see:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext

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