The following is a guest post from Jane Rhodes, the author of Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.
The Revolution has come. . . Again
Panthermania is back. In the 1960s and 1970s, and again in the 1990s, the concept of Panthermania described how American popular culture fetishized the style and politics of the Black Panther Party. Journalist Gail Sheehy’s 1971 book coined the term as she sought to both explain the “lure of the Panthers” and to reinforce the image of them as violent and dangerous hustlers. Mostly Sheehy helped to elevate their celebrity. When Mario Van Peeble’s motion picture Panther was released in 1995, black spectators flocked to theaters and hailed it as a badly needed reclamation of black power politics. Said one black critic, Panther gave viewers “the euphoria of possibility.” Now, a motion picture based on a comic book has resurrected the name and revolutionary fervor of Panthermania. The February debut of Black Panther broke box office records, making nearly $200 million in the first week. Tickets were sold out around the globe and critics hailed Black Panther as “a jolt of a movie” that has the potential to flip the status quo in mass culture. Just a few years ago activists decried the scarcity of black performers and themes in Hollywood-made motion pictures. Now, two media conglomerates—Disney and Marvel Comics—are being credited with helping to create heroic images of black men and women, of transforming the representations of Africa, and of boosting black Americans’ self-esteem.
The film is accumulating wealth for its corporate underwriters and accolades for its black director and actors by invoking the memory of the Black Panther Party, while also denying any connections. Disney’s marketing strategy touted the film as “revolutionary” in an overt bid to attract audiences hungry for a message to counter the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny of our times. Yet, the comic’s origin story is quick to deny any connection with the real revolutionaries. They claim Black Panther was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee prior to the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party. Are we to believe that Kirby and Lee never encountered the symbol of the Black Panther used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or heard Stokely Carmichael’s fierce demands for black power? We do know that Marvel tried repeatedly to distance the comic from its radical namesakes, using only Panther to identify the character in the 1970s, and even changing his name to Black Leopard for a time. This was a small part of a larger project by the state and culture industries of the period to counter the popularity of the Black Panthers and ultimately eradicate their organization. In my book Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon, I trace how the press and entertainment media shifted its representations of the Panthers from anti-white terrorists to sexy revolutionary symbols while the FBI labeled them a national threat. In the marketing of Black Panther we see both of these forces at work.
Despite the quest to decouple the film from politics, Black Panther succeeds in offering viewers a cathartic connection with radical change. From setting the opening scenes in Oakland, to a script with ample critiques of colonialism and white supremacy and calls for the redistribution wealth and a global black freedom struggle, we see and hear the shadow of the Black Panther Party. Since the film’s debut, schools, churches, community organizations, and family groups have made viewing Black Panther an act of racial solidarity and pride. Projects like #BlackPantherChallenge raised thousands of dollars to underwrite tickets for black children. On opening night in Chicago I spoke to a group of 250 well-heeled black attorneys and judges—some resplendent in African-inspired garb—who were giddy with excitement about the film. They were also anxious to examine the underlying need for an “uplifting” black film and saw it as a chance for celebration. The next week I encountered a room full of black college students ready to unpack every trope, scene and character and to connect them to the current political environment. If viewing Black Panther helps to create black spaces for conversation and critical engagement then Panthermania has, indeed, returned.
-Jane Rhodes, University of Illinois at Chicago