What does it feel like as an African-American to come full circle with your black identity? Is it a lonely journey? A trek to self-realization that historic passages or conversations with your favorite college professor can’t fulfill unless you take the road less traveled? Does it take you finally renewing your passport and purchasing a ticket to your African country of choice with just your senses packed? What does it feel like after years of incomplete school lessons and our buried achievements to finally realize your true black self? For critically-acclaimed director Ryan Coogler, those burning questions needed to be extinguished ahead of him turning Black Panther from a comic book character into a full-length feature film.
While patrons stepped out in their finest threads mid-New York Fashion Week at the BAM Harvey Theater (Feb. 14), screening attendees willingly drowned themselves in the film’s emotional depth. Before sipping on D’USSE cocktails fashioned after the stylings of Wakanda, the conversation between Coogler and OkayAfrica’s CEO, Abiola Oke set the tone for future viewings to come.
As a young Oakland native, Coogler recalled the “You’re black” sit-down discussion his parents had with him. It was a weighty talk that the 31-year-old visionary carries until this day. “I had a lot of pain inside of me due to not being able to know my ancestry,” Coogler said to the audience, “and only being able to access that wound.” Going through life under the label “African-American” left a resounding question of “why?” that continued to increase in font size as Coogler got older.
So now, what does it take to translate that feeling into Black Panther? Does it include a thorough script, vivid storyboard, the best of the best special effects gurus? Of course. But for Coogler, the piece that would make it complete was a trip to “the continent.” In order to bring justice to Black Panther, the screenwriter stressed to Marvel Studios the necessity of visiting South Africa — a place that once seemed extremely far from home before ultimately feeling a lot like his Oakland hometown.
Upon his arrival to the southern country, he befriended the hotel staff and was eventually invited to a ritual ceremony that, to his surprise, resembled a get together back stateside. From OGs that engaged in spirited conversations in Xhosa to “young cats” discussing the latest in their culture and interests, Coogler realized this sort of gathering was something he’d been taking part in on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
When the dialogue moved into the topic of slavery, Coogler pointed out how the practices of our ancestors were unsuspectingly embedded within us [black people in America] despite the fact that some of us are looking for that hidden connection to our beings’ genesis.
“What they did to us, it was no way they could wipe out what we’ve been doing for thousands of years,” the film director pointed out. “What we were taught about our own African-American culture is that it’s a bastardized culture. We’re taught that we lost the things that made us African; we don’t have them anymore, we have to make due with the scraps.”
From Coogler’s statements, it’s clear that Black Panther is deeper than just another superhero blockbuster. There’s something to familiarize yourself with the converging storylines of that longing for a purpose, and an attachment to those that came before you. It can be felt through villain Erik Killmonger or the Black Panther himself, King T’Challa. There’s a line in the film — which won’t be published here for the sake of spoilers — that plays along the lines of a young black American person’s infatuation with a world that they’re longing to get to.
If anything, Black Panther shows that black identity isn’t a fantasy for those that are yearning to finally come full circle.