Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at ‘Black Panther’ screening in Oakland
on February 23, 2018
Cynthia Prince, a black woman who lives in San Francisco, stood at the front of a long line of Bay Area residents waiting outside of Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater to listen to author Ta-Nehisi Coates and watch Marvel’s Black Panther. The action film, which stars a nearly all-black cast and imagines an Afrofuturist world untouched by white supremacy and colonialism, had a record-breaking opening weekend. Like many in the line, Prince had already seen the film but was excited to see it again.
Prince, 58, serves on the board of Lincoln, an Oakland nonprofit that works with children and families who have experienced trauma, which was sponsoring the screening. “These are kids who are looking for something and they need something. They need role models and they need to hear the right voice,” said Price. “And Ta-Nehisi is the right voice. He speaks a lot of truth.”
People in line were buzzing about the film, filling each other in on how Coates, one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, who writes for The Atlantic and has published two New York Times bestselling books, is currently writing a series of Black Panther comics for Marvel, or debating the finer points of Wakanda, the fictional land where the titular character, played by actor Chadwick Boseman, rules as its king. When we meet Black Panther, whose birth name is T’Challa, he is mourning the death of his father and getting ready to take over his throne. But he has more than one challenger, including Eric Killmonger, the supervillain played by Michael B. Jordan.
The line, which curved around the theater and reached far enough to block the entrances to at least five storefronts, was as diverse as Oakland itself, a reflection of how the film has sparked a national dialogue about the power of representation in media. Before Black Panther was released, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with film franchises like Iron Man and Captain America, were microcosms of the limit to black representation in not just contemporary superhero films, but American film in general.
For the majority of cinematic history, save for the Blaxploitation genre and work by directors like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay, black actors usually played minor characters in films, or even sidekicks. (Iron Man has a black sidekick in War Machine and Captain America has one in Falcon). But that was about it. So for a blockbuster film (Marvel spent $200 million making it) to have only two white principal characters in a central cast of 14 is an anomaly.
But that wasn’t the limit of how the film showcased parts of the black experience seldom seen in American cinema. Several black female characters are all strong in their own way: Shuri, played Letitia Wright, is a scientist and technology wizard. Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is a stealthy, humanitarian spy. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, is loyal to her country and an improvisational fighter.
The aesthetics of the film also draw from a variety of African traditions. The language Wakandans speak is isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and their written language is based on Nsibidi, an ancient Nigerian language. Even the cast of the film showcased talent from throughout the African diaspora: Boseman is American, Nyong’o is Kenyan, Wright is Guyanese.
Although it was certainly an international film focused on Africa, it had a local element. In the film, Killmonger was born and raised in Oakland, which was no accident. Ryan Coogler, the film’s director, is an Oakland native. Coogler’s directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, starred Jordan playing Oscar Grant and won top prizes at Sundance in 2013. Coogler had some training with a big budget film prior to directing Black Panther with 2015’s Creed. But Coogler’s multitudinous marvel of Blackness in this superhero flick led to him being dubbed “the new Steven Spielberg” by IndieWire.
Black Panther’s $426 million opening weekend is the fifth largest of all time and the largest in February, according to numbers released by Marvel Studios. Many fans in the line, including Ricardo Gomes, a professor at San Francisco State University who was in the group with Prince, were wearing traditional African garb, costumes and makeup inspired by the film, or a combination of both. Further down the line, Tanefer Camara had white dots tracing her cheekbones, inspired by the character Shuri.
Camara saw the film for the first time on its opening night and was back to see it again. “Oh my God, I thought it was amazing. It was the best film that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Just the representation of African culture, black people, the positive images of black women and the strong warriors—it was lit. I loved it.”
Camara said she was cosplaying Shuri because she is one of the film’s positive representations of black women, but said she was looking forward the most to the discussion with Coates. “There were a lot of themes that came up in the movie around African vs. African-American relations, women in leadership roles and powerful roles. That whole gender dynamic and equality of women came up a lot in the movie,” she said. “So I’m really interested in hearing his different thoughts and perspectives on those relationships between African people on the continent and African-Americans, but also just the relevance of women’s equality, particularly black women in America, and all over the world.”
Coates was the draw for Prince, too, who had tried to hear him speak on several other occasions. Like Coogler, Coates has had his own chart-toppers—two, actually—in recent years. In 2015, his book Between the World and Me—about police brutality, the experience of living in a black body in America, and how he raises his son in a country with a history of violence toward black people—was a New York Times bestseller, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and netted Coates a MacArthur Genius Grant. Then, in 2017, he released We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays he wrote for The Atlantic about the presidency of Barack Obama. It was also a New York Times bestseller.
Before answering any questions from his interviewer, Dr. Macheo Payne, Lincoln’s senior director of equity and educational initiatives, Coates gave a shout out to any members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense who might have been in the building. The political activist group, which was founded in Oakland in 1966 only months after Marvel debuted the Black Panther character in its Fantastic Four comics, powerfully mobilized the black community to address issues like police brutality, food insecurity, and community-based healthcare. Coates said his father was a member of the Black Panther Party’s Baltimore chapter, so it was an honor for him to speak in the birthplace of that organization.
But despite his achievements and track record of writing about black struggles, Coates was reluctant to call his own work a “tool for liberation,” when Payne asked if he sees his writing that way. “Wow,” Coates said, incredulous that his work was thought of that way. He hung his head, shook it, and then chuckled along with the crowd. “Yeah, I think I’m going to leave that to them,” he said, referring to his readers. “You can’t go around thinking like that. That’ll get you in trouble. You can get an ego with that. You can start thinking too much of yourself.”
Coates said that he’s just trying, at the very least, to be good at his craft, writing. He said that he struggled for a long time to be a good writer and is still fighting an uphill battle to tell stories through the medium of comic books, rather than magazines or news websites. It’s very different, he said, to tell stories in a visual medium when you’re used to one dominated by words. He used Coogler as an example of a great visual storyteller. “Ryan is a superb craftsman. This film is superb. He did the job,” Coates said. “But before when I saw the film, he looked at me and said, ‘Was it good?’”
The crowd laughed at his story, but Coates said “he could relate” to Coogler. “It’s got to be good. You’ve got to be good at what you’re doing before you get all of these second and third level questions of effect [and] liberation,” he said.
Coogler was also able to show a side of African Diasporic experience in Black Panther, Coates said, that he doesn’t typically focus on in his own writing. “One of the things that’s cool about this film is that I talk about one side of being black in this country, and that is the side of being racialized,” Coates said. “But there’s a whole other side and that is being part of a people, a history, a tradition, a way of talking to each other, the kind of music that we listen to, the kind of food that we love. It’s a beautiful thing.”
He also spoke about the importance of representation—seeing people who look like you or share a similar background as you in positions of power, complexity, and agency. “One thing that people don’t get about racism and white supremacy is all of the mental messages it sends about yourself: you’re stupid, you’re uncivilized, you’re nappy headed … all of that,” Coates said. “It takes an incredible amount of energy to resist that and so to see a movie where…everything is reversed. Where the world is as we see it in our own private space, and not as they broadcast it, that is tremendous.”
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