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Black Panther brings Afrofuturism into the mainstream

Director Ryan Coogler shares his definition of the genre and philosophical outlook

Clarisse Loughrey@clarisselou
Wednesday 13 June 2018 14:14
Black Panther director, Ryan Coogler, describes what Afrofuturism means to him

The release of Black Panther is a major cultural moment – a film that places a black superhero front and centre of the Marvel cinematic universe, features a black director in Ryan Coogler, and a majority black cast (and a star-packed one at that: Michael B Jordan, Angela Bassett, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o).

Its arrival on our screens coincides with a UCLA released a report on diversity in last year’s top-grossing films, uncovering that people of colour accounted for only 13.6 per cent of film leads, remaining under-represented by a factor of three to one.

Yet that's only part of the problem. Western-centric views of Africa that stereotype and diminish its countries and cultures still abound. Black Panther, however, not only offers an Afrocentric perspective, but one that draws on the rich, layered concept of Afrofuturism, born out of black artists imagining the endless possibilities of new futures.

The movie follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), King of Wakanda, a fictional African nation whose discovery of vibranium has helped make it the most technologically advanced in the world. A concept which falls into line with Afrofuturist themes, though there’s little consensus as to the concepts exact meaning or definition. It’s one so variable, wide-ranging, and often personal, that it can encompass all at once: feminist ideology (Black Panther represents this well, including in the all-female bodyguard unit the Dora Milaje), mysticism, cosmology, mythology, and metaphysics.

Director Ryan Coogler, though, sees labels as ultimately constricting, especially since the increasingly “open-sourced” nature of technology has meant that, “more definitions are embraced, people make their own definitions”.

However, if there is a central notion of Afrofuturism, the director best explains it thus: “I think that views of Africa and African culture, almost as a direct result of colonisation, are oftentimes very limited in terms of time. It’s explored only in certain chunks of time. And I think, because the continent of Africa and humanity on that continent is so old, you know, that that’s a horrible disservice to the people that come from those cultures.”

“So, I think Afrofuturism is kind of a response to that. It finds a way to bridge the cultural aspects of the ancient African traditions with the potential of the future. Just looking at Africans and African culture in that context is refreshing, you know, when you’re used to looking at it in the context that mainstream media tends to portray it.”

Black Panther - trailer

The term was first coined in 1996 by critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future”, which examined the sci-fi works of African-American writers such as Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler, while also questioning why black voices are largely absent from a genre whose themes are so often built around ideas of marginalisation.

"Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?" Dery writes. "Furthermore, isn’t the unreal estate of the future already owned by the technocrats, futurologists, streamliners, and set designers - white to a man - who have engineered our collective fantasies?”

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However, though Dery was the first to formally recognise it, Afrofuturism seems already to have been fairly widespread by the late 1950s. There are several texts even considered to be predecessors to the genre; one of the earliest being William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ recently uncovered short story "Princess Steel”, dated to 1908, about a black sociologist who invents a “megascope” that can see across time and space.

Lupita Nyong'o as Nakia (left) and Letitia Wright 

George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), meanwhile, is believed to be the first sci-fi novel by an African-American, examining contemporary race relations through the lens of satire. The story follows a black doctor who invents a serum which removes all pigmentations from the body, thus making black individuals look white.

One of Afrofuturism’s most crucial voices was Sun Ra, often credited with first introducing its philosophies to music. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he experienced a life-changing hallucinatory vision in which he was abducted from Earth and brought to Saturn, where, he said, the future was unveiled to him. Composing avant garde music which tied together the full spectrum of jazz, while blending the aesthetics of Egyptian mythology and sci-fi, he claimed – or, at least, his persona claimed – that he was actually an emissary from Saturn on a mission to preach peace.

”I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me,” he explained, as quoted in a 1989 press release by A&M Records.

His 1973 album Space is the Place gave way to a film of the same name, which he co-wrote and starred in as himself. The film sees Sun Ra, after landing on a new planet, decide to found an African-American colony, subsequently travelling through Oakland, California, in an effort to spread word of his plans.

These same ideas were also reflected in the work of George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective, forging an eclectic take on funk that encompassed both psychedelia and sci-fi, as best demonstrated by the 1975 Parliament album Mothership Connection and its single of the same name. The song introduces Clinton’s messianic alien alter ego Star Child, who declares: “We have returned to claim the Pyramids”.

Spiritual figure: Forest Whitaker as Zuri 

Afrofuturistic themes can also be seen in the music of Afrika Bambaataa, Jonzun Crew, Warp 9, Deltron 3030, Outkast, and Ras G. More recently, Janelle Monae brought cybernetic vibes to her Metropolis concept series, which includes the album The ArchAndroid. There was also a touch of Afrofuturism to be found in Beyonce’s Grammys performance last year and in several pieces of her Lemonade-era iconography, such as references to the pantheon of Yoruba goddesses, including Oshun and Yemoja.

Indeed, it’s telling that the singer called upon artist Awol Erizku to produce the internet-breaking photo series announcing her second pregnancy, entitled I Have Three Hearts. Erizku’s work is distinctly Afrofuturist in its tone, melding both African mythology and Renaissance iconography to imagine a future in which black individuals can freely reconcile their African heritage and Western culture.

Certainly, the Black Panther comics have their own part to play in the development of Afrofuturism. Though the character originates from white creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the series began to fully engage in Afrofuturist concepts in the hands of black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates penned the 2015 storyline A Nation Under Our Feet, which integrated distinctive feminist themes, while noted Afrofuturist Nnedi Okorafor is currently the writer on Black Panther: Long Live the King, which finds the nation of Wakanda besieged by a monster which destroys all in its path.

Though Coogler’s Black Panther does draw directly on political themes, Afrofuturism has never been about confining itself to any definitive task. Sci-fi may have a long history of following certain anxieties, fears, and social constructs to a sense of natural conclusion, in order to hold up a mirror to our current world, it can also be used as a platform to explore every corner of the unconfined imagination.

As author Ytasha Womack writes in Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture: “Self-expression in Afrofuturism isn’t about making a statement, it’s about being.”

'Black Panther' is out now on digital, DVD, & Blu-ray.