Wakanda Forever: How ‘Black Panther’ Blended Politics and Pop Culture

When “Black Panther” was released in U.S. theaters Feb. 16, it was an instant hit: raking in $242 million domestically over its initial four-day run, it had the fifth-greatest opening-weekend return of all time.

“Black Panther” was the talk of town even before its cinematic success, as it was the most-tweeted movie in 2018 before it even hit theaters.

Glowing reviews of the film almost instantly morphed into analyses of its prevalent political undertones, particularly about pan-Africanism and its critique of Western colonialism.

“‘Black Panther’ advocates for a far more practically progressive, Pan-African political engagement,” wrote Michael Bennett for Slate. He noted that the movie thematically serves as a great venue to discuss topics related to black political thought while also being an entertaining film.

“It would be a charming and unexpected indicator of how far we’ve stumbled into the muddied mashed arena of political entertainment and entertaining politics,” Bennett noted.

“Wakanda looks like a place I want to be a citizen of, because it looks like such a beautiful, egalitarian society,” wrote the Washington Post’s Larry Madowo and Karen Attiah, praising the film’s main setting as a utopia. “Considering the mess so many African countries are in, it’s an escape to see what we can be: the richest country in the world, everything, vibranium in excess.”

Even looking at the specifics of the plot, one can clearly see anti-imperialist political leanings, as portrayed through the movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger.

“Killmonger’s plan for ‘black liberation,’ arming insurgencies all over the world, is an American policy that has backfired and led to unforeseen disasters perhaps every single time it has been deployed,” explained The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer.

“That the climactic battle in ‘Black Panther’ is a bloodbath between Wakandan factions is no accident; it is Killmonger putting the never-colonized Wakanda through a taste of colonialism in microcosm,” Serwer wrote.

The opening-weekend momentum represents a strong cultural shift to many, especially in the face of white-centric Hollywood.

“This might sound very hyperbolic but I have never been more proud of being black and African,” wrote Quartz Africa reporter Abdi Latif Dahir. “I was also very much amazed at how strong and independent the women in the movie were.”

Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago, attributed ‘Black Panther’s’ success to a conscious effort to show studios that movies with black casts can be successful while simultaneously showing off American diversity.

“[‘Black Panther’ is] speaking to an audience that’s in real need of inspiration and solutions, and it layers all those things into what would otherwise be a conventional superhero movie,” she told Reuters’ Andrew Kelly.

Even beyond its political undertones, activists are using “Black Panther’s” record-setting openings to register people to vote.

The #WakandaTheVote initiative, a part of the Electoral Justice Project, was launched by three African-American activists in an attempt to register members of the black community that are turning out to see” Black Panther” in droves.

Pushes to utilize pop culture to get people to the polls is part of a new, innovative strategy to mobilize minority voters in the upcoming midterms and in the presidential election, according to Vox.

“It’s a change that other black organizing groups have sought, working in recent elections in Virginia and Alabama to turn old models of engaging with black voters on their head by emphasizing the ballot as a way for black communities to show their power and encouraging long-term voter persuasion efforts,” Vox’s P.R. Lockhart wrote.

“Blank Panther’s” opening weekend has shown that big-budget action films can be a powerful tool for politics, both educating audiences with complex allegories and in inspiring activism.

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