February 14, 2018

PINERO | The Revisionist History of Black Panther

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Black Panther hits theaters everywhere tomorrow.  The buzz around the movie is electric, as evidenced by its formidable social media presence, record-breaking box office projections and ubiquity in the thinkpiece realm. Though the reviews are glowing, what seems to be propelling this global phenomenon is not the movie itself, but its materiality to the world as it is today.

In the comic book world, the word “retcon” is a common portmanteau for “retroactive continuity.” It refers to the reframing of past events to serve a current plot need. For example, TV shows often retcon characters’ backstories in order to explain their present actions.

The first retcon in the Black Panther canon was not a backstory written into the comics, but one unintentionally provided by a real-world twist of fate. Just a year after the release of Black Panther’s first appearance in 1966, the revolutionary party of the same name was formed; by this remarkable fortuity, Marvel’s first black superhero suddenly stumbled into symbolizing Black Power.

Tomorrow, the Black Panther film will be released to a second serendipitous real-world retcon. This movie, which began development in the early ’90s, will make its debut in Trump’s America. The film did not begin as a response to this particular cultural moment, but the zeitgeist has retconned it into being exactly that.

A few years ago, the film would have served to bolster the false narrative of post-racialism, underscoring Obama’s myth: they accept us. Now, however, at a time when our government spends its days shouting from the rooftops about how much they hate black and brown people, Panther is a delightfully blunt reply: we don’t care.

At the risk of stretching this metaphor too far, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is, itself, a retcon. It demands the viewer reconsider everything they know about Africa and her diaspora by introducing us to a version of events in which neither has encountered whiteness.

Chadwick Boseman, who plays the titular role, carefully crafted his quasi-African accent, explaining that a European one “would [convey] a white supremacist idea” of what it means to be educated or to be royal. We are asked to imagine: what if “elite” didn’t mean “white?”

Dark-skinned black women, typically relegated by Hollywood to roles as the nurturing matron or the comic relief (if they are cast at all), here portray the Dora Milaje, the brave and beautiful protectors of Wakanda. We are asked to imagine: what if we didn’t see the world through the white male gaze?

Wakanda, Panther’s primary setting, is a technologically superior African society possessing rich natural resources; the film arguably depicts the most vivid vision of Afrofuturism in cinematic history. We are asked to imagine: what if our — and our ancestors’ — land had never been stolen?

History is the ultimate retcon — the victors are the authors — so events and figures that fit the desired narrative are highlighted, while those that don’t are erased. The histories of the marginalized have historically been told only if they serve the dominant narrative. Imagining an alternate history allows us to see ourselves not as supporting characters but as protagonists in our own right. Black Panther resonates so deeply because in its universe, the erased have written themselves a new story.

 

Jade Pinero is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at jpinero@cornellsun.com. Jaded and Confused runs biweekly on Thursdays this semester.