Skip to main content

Oakland’s Two Black Panthers: The Movie And The Movement

Director Ryan Coogler attends a special screening of

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Above: Director Ryan Coogler attends a special screening of "Black Panther" at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in New York.

On the opening night of the much anticipated “Black Panther” movie, director Ryan Coogler made a special appearance at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, talking to fans before the screening. Coogler was born in Oakland, and the film actually begins in his hometown.

Oakland is also the birthplace of a different panther, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

In 1966, two black men, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the revolutionary movement.

Only a few months earlier two white men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, had introduced a black superhero into the Marvel Comics canon with the same name.

“This is the middle of the civil rights movement, a ramping up of the civil rights movement, and they created a character called Black Panther” said Shawn Taylor, a co-founder of the Black Comix Arts Festival and the website The Nerds of Color.

Now that character has his own movie, a movie made by, about, and as Taylor sees it, for black people. “There’s cultural blackness in this film, that some people may not get,” Taylor said.

“There are so many, my friend calls them blackisms, that if you aren’t black you just may not get,” he said.

And that is just fine with him, he said, “because if people want to watch ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ that have nothing to do with me, I am OK with ‘Black Panther’ having nothing to do with a lot of other people.”

That is one reason this movie is much more than a movie. It is a cultural event. “This is a moment, like African medallions in hip-hop, that’s connecting us to a larger mythology,” Taylor said.

In Oakland, the anticipation is palpable. Coogler’s ties to Oakland have informed his work. His breakthrough first movie, “Fruitvale Station,” was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young unarmed black man from Oakland who was killed by a BART police officer in 2009. Grant lay restrained and face down on a crowded BART platform when he was shot in the back. That was before Trayvon Martin, before Michael Brown, before Black Lives Matter.

Shawn Taylor said it was serendipity that Black Panther was the name given to both a black Marvel superhero and a movement for black liberation in the same year. It was not a connection that Marvel wanted, Taylor said. They even tried to change the name “because they didn’t want to be associated with the Black Panther Party.”

Some of the options tried out included Black Jaguar and Coal Tiger, and even dropping the “black” from Black Panther. But none of it worked.

Taylor says it was just too cool of a name. “I mean, ideas are bigger than us,” Taylor said.

The idea of the Black Panther grew over time. In comic books and graphic novels a character is not just created by its originator. The universe is explored and populated by other writers. The Black Panther comic, and the Black Panther universe, was written over decades, by generations of comic book writers such as Christopher Priest, and more recently by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay.

These writers expanded on the mythic world that T’Challa — the Black Panther — came from and protected, the imagined African country of Wakanda.

“It is a country in Africa that has never been conquered by any European powers or anyone else,” Taylor said.

Wakanda, Taylor said, “is the most technologically advanced country in the world.”

Wakanda is not post-colonial or pre-colonial. It exists in a timeline where colonization never happened. It is an African country in which people were never raped, murdered and kidnapped, never stacked on top of each other on ships that took them to death and slavery and struggle.

Colonization not only shapes the stories of black Americans, but also the narratives of African countries — countries where colonizers staged proxy wars and propped up dictatorships so they could continue to harvest rich natural resources.

In the world of Wakanda black people are free to create, to innovate, to determine their own destiny. In that imagined space, they create technology beyond our wildest dreams. The metal that makes Captain America’s shield, vibranium, comes from Wakanda.

In the Marvel universe, Captain America represents America’s greatness. It seems fitting that his primary weapon, his shield, comes from the natural resources of an (imagined) African country.

That is a pretty apt metaphor for colonial power.

In Wakanda, the comics created a place where black people rule themselves. Historically, self-rule is a radical concept for people of color in America.

Which brings us back to the Black Panther Party, because self-rule is a concept for which they advocated and fought. That fight started in Oakland.

There is archival tape of Huey Newton, when he was leader of the Black Panther Party, just after he was arrested, talking to the press.

“If the police were to withdraw from the community,” Newton said, “and the black community control its own police institution as well as all the other institutions within our community — we feel that law and order would exist.” Peace too, he added.

What he was asking for was a Wakanda, a space in which black people can rule themselves.

Imagination Is Revolutionary

“This idea of black heroes, this idea of a black liberation army, an army of warriors ready to fight, this is both literal and figurative,” Malkia Cyril said.

Cyril grew up in the Black Panther Party. “I am the daughter of a Black Panther, a real Black Panther.”

Cyril is also the founder of the Center for Media Justice, so Cyril knows just how much representation matters, and not just representation, but empowered representation.

“That’s the heart of Afrofuturism,” Cyril said.

Quick history lesson: Afrofuturism was coined in 1993 by the journalist Mark Dery — a white guy — to define the artistic movement where images of ancient Africa intersect with the future and the fantastic.

“It’s also digging into the past, bringing it forward, imaging the impossible,” Cyril said.

Afrofuturism was, in part, born out of a question, said Shawn Taylor: Why weren’t more African-Americans represented in science fiction?

“Black existence in America is science fiction,” Taylor said. “Aliens came to your land, abducted you, stole your god, stole your music, stole your language, and dropped you off into an alien land with new flora, new fauna — new everything. So black experience is science fiction.”

If the real world is already sci-fi, why not use science fiction and fantasy to imagine a better one, Taylor asked.

Taylor believes the power of creations like Black Panther lies in their ability to imagine transcending the chains of the past, to fill in the holes of history, and to see the future through a black lens.

“So what I think we can do as a revolutionary tool, as a resistance tool, is look at these narratives that Ryan Coogler and his team did, but then ask what do we create new from there,” Taylor said.

There is another term Taylor uses: ethno-speculation. The idea is to conjure and interrogate the world purely from one’s own perspective. Historically, most mainstream movies about the African-American experience, he said, are about slavery and trauma, about the wounds of the past. There is a power in imagining yourself outside of that, Taylor said.

“I want to see what an Arab-American story is without white supremacy involved, without having to be labeled a terrorist. I want to see that story,” Taylor said.

“I want to see a woman’s story not having to contend with misogyny,” Taylor said. “I want to see a queer story not having to contend with homophobia, when you do these kind of cultural speculations, you get such beautiful and rich stories without always having to have double consciousness involved.”

Taylor said the power to speculate about a world without white supremacy makes that world, that self, feel possible. And that creates not a retreat, but a way forward.

Taylor admits that people still have to contend with reality.

In the technologically superior Wakanda, “technology elevates everybody,” Taylor said.

Taylor knows that does not carry over to the world we live in. “Oakland is kind of like the anti-Wakanda,” he said.

That is because technology here is fueling gentrification and the displacement of Oakland’s historic black population.

That is one reason activist Malkia Cyril said seeing the film is not enough.

At screenings, Cyril will also be talking, engaging in conversations. Cyril will be telling people about the Black Panther Party members still behind bars. Cyril said they were unfairly accused and convicted, targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO.

Cyril will also be talking about the FBI’s newest target, so-called Black Identity Extremists. Cyril said that is a barely disguised code for Black Lives Matter activists, of which Cyril is one.

“Ryan Coogler’s job was to make this amazing film — and he did that. He did his job. Now it’s time for us to be on our job,” Cyril said.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.