Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, AM’93, PhD’99, professor of cinema and media studies, is the author of Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (University of California Press, 2005) and coauthor of LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015). Director of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, she also directs the South Side Home Movie Project and is cocurator of the LA Rebellion Preservation Project at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. She talked to Tableau about Black Panther for its Two Perspectives series; below are excerpts from the interview.


Did you have a favorite character in Black Panther?

Shuri, the younger sister (Letitia Wright). This is a character who’s a nerd, who’s interested in science and technology—and fashion. I cannot imagine a better advertisement for the importance of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education.

At the end of the film, she’s going to be in charge of a science and technology program in Oakland [California]. That scene was something that millions of kids would see, and maybe they would get excited about exploring those kinds of careers. That’s phenomenal.

What did you think of Killmonger?

With Killmonger [Michael B. Jordan], I think Ryan Coogler as a black filmmaker was trying to explore the origins of young black male aggression. The ways in which divestment in African American urban communities produces generations of black boys—who become men—who feel that they don’t have a strong tradition, or the material or cultural resources to feel strong and powerful. Killmonger’s misguidedness is terrifying, but I think Coogler is trying to make that relatable. He’s trying to do a certain kind of pedagogical work with the young African American men that he knows are going to turn out in droves to see this film.

Killmonger saw freedom in death, in the way that those ancestors who threw themselves off the slave ships did. We know Coogler thought that radical black message was important. But the fact that it struck Disney and Marvel as something that could be included without alienating white audiences, and compromising box office returns, is interesting.

Black Panther is very much invested in a certain patriarchal view, while trying to make up for that by presenting strong black women in Wakanda. In a way these women characters were making up for the loss of power that you see in the context of African American families and communities in that film.

What about memorable moments?

There are a few moments in Black Panther where you get a sense of everydayness or intimacy. You see T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri clowning around with each other. You see him and his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) walking through the market.

Then there’s the moment when Killmonger crashes the council of elders and announces that he intends to usurp the throne. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is looking outraged and he calmly says, “Hey, Auntie.”

He’s being totally flippant and disrespectful. But at the same time, it raises questions about what constitutes black family: the relatives we accept, the ones we have rejected. Black Panther attempts to get at some of these familial moments, even in an action film.

Another one of my favorite lines is when Killmonger says to the elders, “Y’all sitting up here comfortable.” The way he says comfortable. What that requires, the material resources to have that comfort and peace of mind—those things have been denied the majority of black people.

Black Panther evokes a lot of fantasy, a version of an Afrofuturist vision, that technological advancements can bring about tremendous wealth. What the film only gestures toward at the end is how to move use the abundant resources that you see in Wakanda to address the psychological toll of oppression and under-resourcing that you see in Oakland. What are the steps in between?

One of the brilliant contributions of the LA Rebellion films is that they start to map out the inner work that needs to happen to bring about strong black futures. We have some stages in between that we need to figure out here.


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