The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s royal guard, in a scene from Black Panther (Marvel Studios)
On a rainy Friday afternoon in January, rivulets of black comic fans trickled through the halls of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The occasion was the annual Black Comic Book Festival—an event that draws thousands of comic enthusiasts, creators, publishers and collectors. Black Panther tickets had just gone on sale days before, and an evening event at the festival promised advanced clips from the film. But the Marvel film was, in many ways, old news to some of the attendees.
They were there to commune with one another, promote their stories, explore new stories and revel in a space that was wholly theirs.
Lining the halls were comic book heads of all levels—the devout, with decades of reading under their belt; others who were in their nascency; and kids curious about the characters in costumes lining the vendor tables. At a Black Characters Matter panel, Stacey Robinson, an artist and Arthur Schomburg fellow, spoke in the Langston Hughes Auditorium about his art. How, through it, he transforms the gallery spaces containing his pieces—areas that have long excluded black people as creators and audience—into spaces where black liberation was foregrounded, if only temporarily.
Robinson spoke to the audience about the need to “define our blackness instead of responding to our colonial situation.” By putting work centering black life in historically white spaces, Robinson said that he aimed to “transform the original concept of that space.”
Listening to Robinson, it was hard not to consider the anticipation for Black Panther against what American theaters have historically been: segregated spaces largely unconcerned with depicting black life. Now, in the days leading up to Black Panther’s official release, the biggest story in cinema right now is about a black utopian space—Wakanda.
Back in January, the early numbers assigned a quantitative value to the anticipation many had felt for months. During a news cycle that felt frequently dystopic, the pull of a true black utopian space, whether it be the fictional Wakanda or the community of enthralled movie theatergoers immersing themselves in it, was real.
Black Panther offers up a singular hero and what may be the strongest case to date (though far from the first) for racial parity in Hollywood. But just as important as the film’s titular main character is its setting—an African country that has never been colonized or pillaged. A place that kept its dearest and most valuable resources secret in order to protect them, and to develop as a sovereign state on its own terms.
As i09 writer and co-author of The Rise of the Black Panther, Evan Narcisse, told the Washington Post, “Wakanda represents this unbroken chain of achievement of black excellence that never got broken by colonialism.”
It’s important to note that Wakanda isn’t a utopia for its lack of conflict—there would certainly be no movie without it—but because of the break it offers from the dystopic narrative that is the literal history of many native peoples around the world: one where colonization, subjugation and, in some places, extermination have been the story.
Wakanda also presents a welcome break from an American cinematic tradition that has either ignored the lives of black people or focused heavy-handedly on black trauma and victimhood.
The net result is a flat cinematic rendering of black humanity, where black people are viewed primarily as survivors of racial trauma and violence. The secondary effect is that many of these films—2017’s Detroit is a prime example—often feel like primers for white audiences about the evils of racism than compassionate and complex imaginings of black people as living beings.
This singular presentation has limited the ways that black audiences could view themselves, stymied filmmakers eager to tell alternative narratives and restricted actors looking to bring more nuanced, truthful characters to the screen. Actress Florence Kasumba, who plays a member of Wakanda’s all-woman royal guard, the Dora Milaje, can speak to that void.
“When I grew up, I wanted to have these role models and I wanted to see maybe people that looked like me where I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do that, too!’ But I didn’t have that,” Kasumba told The Root. “All of a sudden there’s this movie that’s coming out and you’ve already seen all these different people. And we represent all these different countries or tribes.”
Florence Kasumba attends the European premiere of Black Panther in London on Feb. 8, 2018. (Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
The Ugandan-born German actress, despite having just one line in Captain America: Civil War, was memorable in that film, as much for the quiet force of her presence as her striking looks. Kasumba is dark-skinned, with Grace Jones-high cheekbones and hair that she keeps cut short even when she’s not playing a member of the Wakandan royal guard. Her looks could easily be described by “mainstream” (that is, white) audiences as “exotic”—a label that always raises the question, “Exotic to whom?”
Those labels typically keep actors like Kasumba from playing the sort of characters that most resemble their experiences.
“I always wanted to play a normal person. For me, my goal was to maybe be the best friend,” Kasumba said, adding that the roles she had played before, of refugees and prostitutes, felt very different from her reality.
While those stories are necessary to tell, Wakanda’s is noteworthy because it isn’t a world of compounded trauma; it’s one of self-determination and sovereignty. And for Kasumba, the world of Wakanda on set provided the sort of sisterhood, and normalization, that was missing on other films.
“I always loved the atmosphere. It was very inspirational,” she said of working with the other Dora. Not only did the actresses who played the Wakandan royal guards represent the diversity of the African Diaspora, but they all had extensive martial arts training and, Kasumba says, frequently assisted one another with fight moves on set.
“I would see my colleagues—I would look at their hair, when they still had hair, or the way they would dress themselves, and there were all these things where I just thought—‘I’m not used to that,’” she said.
“Usually people always say [to me], ‘Oh wow. You look different.’ Or, ‘Your style … ,’ and I don’t find my style so special,” Kasumba added. “But there I was around all these different people that were all very confident and very at peace with themselves.”
Lupita Nyong’o (left) and Letitia Wright in Black Panther (Marvel Studios)
For Kasumba, working on Black Panther was that chance to blend in—to just feel normal. She never thought she would get that from a superhero film.
“I thought it was just guys fighting. That’s not the case,” she said. “[My family and I] can’t buy tickets yet in Germany, but I will go out and buy these tickets. Although I was in the movie I’m still thinking, ‘No, I want to support it because I want people to see it.’”
“I have to see it probably a hundred times. You know that’s going to be very expensive,” Kasumba said, tilting her head back in laughter.
In Captain America: Civil War, Kasumba delivered just one line. “Move,” she told Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, “or be moved.” It’s a line that, nearly two years later, stands in for the arrival of Wakanda into the cinematic imagination.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler is certainly not the first to visualize and create a black utopian space on film. But the difference here is one of scale and magnitude: Never before will so many eyes around the world, at the same time, thanks to a singular movie, confront, revel in and contemplate the possibility of black utopia.
This massive collective experience can also give audiences a new shared vocabulary, both visual and verbal, with which to have conversations about blackness, as artist Stacey Robinson says. Last year, for examples, filmgoers used the shorthand of “the sunken place” from Get Out to discuss the white allegiance and subservience some black people and people of color experience.
“The beautiful thing about Wakanda, and the way I think about it even in my work as an artist, is I look at these free black spaces as spaces to jump-start conversations about blackness,” said Robinson. “The way I think about black utopian spaces in my speculative work is we get out of colonialism to begin the conversation about who we are. Outside of colonialism, we can be all things that we want to be. Wakanda is a visualization of that.”
Robinson adds that Wakanda, beyond offering a welcome tonic to a dystopian news cycle, beyond serving as a guide with which to imagine the future, “can actually be the template for what is actually here. What is factual.”
He points out the technologies that black people have created in spite of years of abuse and exploitation. Superheroes like T’Challa are aspirational, but the utopia of Wakanda may give us a way of thinking about and experiencing blackness in the present, Robinson says.
“Who else on the planet has taken the type of abuse that we’ve taken for hundreds of years, and not only have we survived it, but we’ve created some of the best technologies that the world has seen from the last few hundred years?” he said.
“It’s taking the guts of pigs and creating a delicacy that white people sell to other white people for high dollars. We’ve taken the chitlins, our survival mechanism, and we turned it into a technology for our survival that now is something that’s even gentrified,” Robinson said. “Even the guts that they gave us. We are an amazing people.”
Last year the images of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s homeland, enthralled audiences around the world with its glimpse at a lush, women-only utopia (albeit one dominated, it seems, by white women). It hinted at a very specific freedom, away from the war and turmoil of men.
Wakanda will likely have similar resonance. Wakanda is an unmistakably black utopia, but the fundamental fact of worldwide colonization—one that afflicted the Americas and Asia as well as Africa—gives the mythical African nation enduring symbolism. The questions Wakanda raises, and the success the Black Panther film carves out from this place of origin, are sure to sit with audiences and artists for a long time:
Who could we be if the most precious, valuable and beautiful parts of ourselves were left untouched, unpillaged and unspoiled?
What would “normal” have been? What could it be now, if we were only allowed, if we would allow ourselves?
How do you manifest, however temporarily, that sense of utopia—that sense of possibility?
What more can we move?