'Black Panther' Movie Is A Milestone For African-American Culture, Writer Says

Feb 15, 2018

Black Panther opens Friday, and it’s expected to be a blockbuster, but for many people, the film is more than just another superhero flick.

This Marvel Comics character, created in the 1960s, is often credited as the first mainstream black superhero. The new film adaptation takes place in Wakanda, a fictional high-tech nation that's never been colonized and is led by T’Challa, who doubles as the Black Panther. It boasts an African-American director, Ryan Coogler, and a nearly all-black cast, led by Chadwick Boseman. 

University of Pittsburgh professor and poet Yona Harvey co-wrote two Black Panther comics -- "The World of Wakanda" and "Black Panther and the Crew" -- with collaborators including acclaimed authors Ta-Nahesi Coates and Roxane Gay. Harvey recently discussed the film with 90.5  WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

BILL O'DRISCOLL: A lot of people are talking about this film as an cultural milestone, especially for African-American audiences. What's your take?

University of Pittsburgh professor and poet Yona Harvey contributed to two Black Panther stories for Marvel Comics.
Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

YONA HARVEY: Yeah, I think it's definitely a milestone for this moment. I think partly inspired – it’s got to be -- by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of the most recent Black Panther comic. I think Marvel probably didn’t know how excited people were going to be, how so many people were going to tap into that moment. So yeah, it's pretty thrilling.

O'DRISCOLL: I've even seen people taking this up as kind of a political cause. The political action committee called Democracy for America actually sent out a call for people to sign a pledge to go see the movie now because it would be used as a counter-narrative to what we see on CNN, in other words, in the portrayal of black people, in the portrayal of Africa.

HARVEY: I think Wakanda’s such an amazing symbol as far as that goes in terms of showing visually, even though fictionally, the complexity of black life and imagination. So that's really exciting, that's great. I didn't know that.

O'DRISCOLL: Especially in contrast to what we've seen before, depictions in not only the news, but also popular culture.

HARVEY: Yeah, very one-dimensional. A lot of stereotypes. You know, just not a lot of complicated images. Whereas with Wakanda, you get the whole brother-sister dynamic with T’Challa and Shuri. I don't feel like that's something that's explored a lot in the popular culture. Yeah, all this great interest in science and technology and self-determination.

O'DRISCOLL: We're talking about something that for a lot of audiences might just be another fun popcorn action film, a superhero movie. But other folks might see it as a sort of opportunity to do role-modeling and things like that. Do you see it that way at all?

HARVEY: Well, I think the great thing about it is that it can be both of those things. I think when we're really on target, when we're really on point, we're seeing black life in all of its complexities and nuances. You know, we see it holistically so that everything is not riding on one image. So I think that's what's exciting about this film. It's just so far-reaching, like there's going to be this emphasis on this entire fictional nation, and that makes it super-complicated and exciting.

O'DRISCOLL: This is kind of circling back to your involvement with the comic series, the new run you referred to with Ta-Nahesi Coates, with you and Roxane Gay working on it. What did that new run of the series bring to the comics that wasn't there before?

HARVEY: Well, definitely a focus on relationships between women, you know, making women's voices and perspectives more visible, more vocal. So I can't wait to see what happens with that, especially Shuri. I feel like no one talks about her. She is my favorite character in there, so I can't wait to see what her storyline will be in the film.

O'DRISCOLL: Why she is your favorite character?

HARVEY: She has to function maybe in the shadow of her brother. I mean she's literally sort of frozen in time, you know, so it's just kind of interesting to think about her alongside a figure who gets more attention and maybe more credit. And so she's also super smart, intentional. You know, she's a warrior. She's a fighter.