Waiting for Wakanda: Black joy on film as epic resistance
Black Panther is poised to be an experience of unbridled Black fellowship, prosperity, and most of all, joy.
*A note from our Deputy Editor: The themes at Black Youth Project during the month of February are Black Joy and Black Love. It is also Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics, the connections thereof, and the things surrounding them*
Since the birth of film, we have been waiting for Wakanda.
Like many things in our world, film has anti-Black origins. It was never really intended for us to be seen in such a way—as larger than life with reverence and esteem ascribed to Black people, Black culture, and Black aesthetics with care, attention, and sincerity. This, among a host of other reasons, is why Marvel’s Black Panther movie and the joy that it brings us is so important.
From the beginning, visual media has been biased towards the alabaster and beige hues of white skin—a legacy that continues with popular photo filters, automatic soap dispensers, and face-tracking software. For years, Black performers like Sidney Poitier and Duane Jones were placed under extremely bright and harsh lights so that the details of their faces could show up on film.
It only finally became an issue that film-stock had an aversion to dark brown colors when print advertisements for chocolate and wood furniture proved to be inaccurate. Thus, the push towards better, more inclusive photography ultimately rested on white capitalist interests. Black skin was never truly a concern. Even now, cinematographers like Insecure’s Ava Berkofsky are still figuring it out. Black skin on film remains as political as it ever was.
This disdain for Blackness was evident in the very technology used to create cinematic texts for the first one hundred years of photography and film, and its disregard for Black skin was/is, of course, symptomatic of the world’s disdain for Black people.
The first film with an all Black cast was produced in 1913, Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day. Never finished and never released, it starred Black vaudeville actor Bert Williams in Blackface, attempting to court a young woman while driving her around town in his car. The film embraces some harmful stereotypes about Black people and Black culture, but Black joy is still apparent within those moments.
Unfortunately, this vision came just before Black people had a significant setback in U.S. cinema on the heels of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The subsequent suppression of positive depictions of Blackness in film was a reaction to the notions of Black animality and sexual aggressiveness that Griffith perpetrated with this pro-KKK darling, which directly instigated fatal race riots across the U.S. for many years after its release.
Museum of Modern Art film curator Ron Magliozzi believes that the Bert Williams romantic comedy went unreleased because it was not racist enough for white audiences to appreciate. As such, The Birth of a Nation became our first blockbuster and set the tone for Blackness on the screen for the next one hundred years.
Hollywood-made films about Black people typically follow the pattern that The Birth of A Nation established, or depict us as one-dimensionally horrific and melancholic subjects—no more than “beasts of burden” and Black monstrosities. Rarely are there moments of Black joy.
Steven W. Thrasher writes in his poignant review of the Bert Williams film, after viewing it at MoMA’s 12th annual To Save and Project festival:
“These Black performers were wiped out of our American consciousness by Birth of a Nation and decades of subsequently limited Black imagery. It is only a century later that we get to see them; and, their subsequent arrival, as if out of a time capsule.”
Now, as Black Panther (and, later, A Wrinkle in Time) enters the American and global consciousness, there is hope that the imagery of The Birth of a Nation and its kin might instead begin to be wiped out as we are ushered into a Black film renaissance. These are high hopes, I know.
“The beauty of Wakanda is that it is this place that is the most successful, the most advanced nation on earth, and it’s on the continent!” exclaimed Danai Gurira, earthbound goddess and the blessed conduit through which the warrior Okoye will be brought to life. The gifted beauty could hardly contain her excitement as she spoke alongside her cast mates and director Ryan Coogler at the Black Panther 2017 San Diego Comic Con International panel.
As the conversation came to a close, the audience was given a treat—a sneak preview of a scene from the film, a finished product which Coogler and the attending cast members were viewing for the first time themselves. It culminated in an eruption of celebration, both in the audience and on stage. Video shows Danai Gurira, Ryan Coogler, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, Daniel Kaluuya and the other cast and crew in absolute awe, springing from their seats and embracing each other with such fervor, hooping and hollering and praising and testifying.
It was in this moment, holding my breath as I watched the footage of their celebration, that I knew without doubt that my expectations for this film would be fulfilled, perhaps even surpassed. Black Panther is poised to be an experience of unbridled Black fellowship, prosperity, and most of all, joy.
For white supremacy, Black pain and Black labor have been routinely made into welcomed spectacles, but never Black joy.
Never us gathering to do nothing other than celebrate and enjoy our Black-ass selves. Because white supremacy seeks constant control over Black emotionality, the audacity to be jubilant without approval or sanction is a direct challenge to white ascendant expectations and permissions. Even Bert Williams’ “Black joy in Blackface” was feared to be too distasteful for white audiences.
There are, of course, media texts existing outside of the mainstream Hollywood machine which achieve this, telling intimate stories about Black people in ways that forego sensationalizing our pain. But rarely do these stories appear in spaces where white audiences are accustomed to seeing themselves represented predominantly as heroes and saviors.
Black joy will always matter in social and political climates that thrive on anti-Blackness. Public displays of white terrorist violence have been normalized by the current presidential administration, while our speech against oppressive, anti-Black systems has been criminalized and declared as extremism by the very state that subsists through our subjugation. Among these things and a whole host of other insidious forms of anti-Blackness, our jubilation is a means of resistance.
So many of us have found euphoria even in the mere anticipation of Black Panther. Though T’Challa and his surrounding cast of characters are a creation of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, this blockbuster event promises to be an as-yet unrivaled experience brought to us by and through Black creativity, voice, vision, and genius—for, by, and about Black people. Soon and very soon, the wait for Wakanda will finally come to an end, and it will be met with booming and deserved rapture.