Black Panther, which starred Chadwick Boseman, who died on Saturday, was released in 2018 and quickly became one of Hollywood’s most successful box office hits of recent years. By the time I saw it, months after its release, the film was still drawing large audiences. I went to a midweek showing and was lucky to get a seat.
Before seeing it I had never understood our era’s fascination with superhero movies — partly because I don’t like watching mindless explosions for the sake of it, but also because I never found movies made to appeal to mass audiences particularly challenging. That all changed with Black Panther.
Maybe interest was piqued when I read that Ryan Coogler, whose first feature length film, Fruitvale Station, about Oscar Grant, a man killed by police in Oakland, California, was writing and directing the Black Panther adaptation for Disney’s Marvel Studios. Or that Danai Gurira, one of the few actors I can see on television with a deep complexion like mine was cast in a supporting role. Or maybe it was simply that Black Panther was the only film anyone was talking about in the spring of 2018.
Inside the cinema anticipation rolled through the darkened room like a wave. With a knot of excitement in my stomach I watched the movie begin with a soft-voiced child asking his father to tell him the story of home. And that’s when I got it. Their voices were accented in the same round-vowelled west African way as my mother’s, who grew up in Lagos.
It was the first time that I understood why people go to the movies with other people. To see a version of themselves, their questions, their struggles, reflected back at them on the big screen — and to not feel alone in that journey.
Boseman takes the lead as the titular Black Panther character, playing T’Challa, heir apparent to the kingdom of Wakanda, which has hidden its technological and cultural wealth under the veneer of a deprived country in the heart of Africa. But a question about the right of succession — T’Challa must see off a challenge from a vengeful, US-born rival — means that he has to grapple with the notion that his responsibility extends beyond his kingdom.
It made me think about who I am responsible to, as I bridge my US passport with my Nigerian cultural heritage. And also in the moment when I ask myself: which community is mine to help?
The film blends distinct African-American and African cultures into all aspects of the production, from the design elements inspired by groups of Africa peoples from all across the continent, to the isiXhosa language that the cast learned.
Before Black Panther, a Hollywood movie set in Africa featuring an all-black cast would have been too big a gamble. The highest budget a “black” film had before it was the $130m spent to make Will Smith’s Bad Boys II, a sequel to the commercially successful 1995 Bad Boys. Black Panther cost around $200m but went on to gross $1.2bn worldwide.
It was not only a commercial success, winning critical acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for best picture. For Boseman, whose death followed a long battle with colon cancer, it propelled a career marked by acclaimed roles in movies such as 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic, or Get on Up, about the life of James Brown, into the stratosphere.
His performance in Black Panther powered the film and the global audience it attracted. On a global screen, he showed that black voices and perspectives on storytelling matter — and that resonate everywhere.
With roles in the hugely successful Avengers series, along with Black Panther sequels, he was poised to lead an international franchise that has generated billions of dollars at the box office. Few people are ever able to command the attention of millions of people across the world and shape global conversations about race and representation. We know that from the life he lived and the films he chose to be a part of — movies that elevated stories of black people — that he was more than a superhero. He was our superhero — and at a time when we have so few.