Editor's note: As much as 'Black Panther' should be classified as simply a great film, or great superhero film, it will undoubtedly be linked with a sub-genre simply referred to as "black movies" - a cinematic term which has come to represent anything from minorities in directorial capacities, predominatly African-American casts, and themes pertinent to underserved communities.
Black Panther is the most buzzed about movie of the year following a record breaking opening weekend which dispelled the myth that so-called 'black movies" have limited appeal and can't reach a broader audience. As it turned out, the land of Wakanda is a truly magical place for everyone.
Credit should be given to director Ryan Coogler and his crew, not just for their immersive creativity, but also how they carefully situated the film in various traditions of African-American and African filmmaking. A closer look at Black Panther reveals a wealth of references to and inspirations from African-American movies.
Throughout Black Panther, concepts and elements from various black movies are evoked, remixed, and transformed to create something truly special. As it enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther is, in some ways, carrying these films in with it. Hopefully, Black Panther’s massive success will motivate audiences to dig into some of the black movies that influenced Coogler’s vision for the film.
For those wanting more context about the other films which inspired Black Panther, look no further than these ten selections.
Ryan Coogler readily admits that Malcolm X has had an immense impact on him as a filmmaker. The director conducted a Q&A at an early screening of Black Panther, and it just so happened that Malcolm X director Spike Lee was in attendance. He couldn’t help but hold forth about one of his cinematic heroes and what the release of the film meant for black movies:
“Malcolm X was a big one for me, because I’d never seen a black man that powerful. There is a point in the film where the Malcolm X showed up that everybody knew, he’s in prison and he’s got glasses on, and my dad said -- ‘There he is!’... It was more than a movie.”
Critics are seeing shades of Malcolm X in Black Panther. The Washington Post’s Peniel E. Joseph recently wrote, “Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) brash intelligence echoes an unsettling combination of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.” Both The Irish Times and Variety echoed this sentiment, musing that the Killmonger/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) offers a super hero version of the strategic conflicts between that marked the relationship between Dr. King and Malcolm X.
While divergent strategies of MLK and Malcolm X is a common theme in black movies (it was characterized directly in Ava Duvernay’s Selma), Black Panther approaches the venerable topic in African-American film with a nuanced approach that you wouldn’t expect from a blockbuster.
Chadwick Boseman pointed this out in a recent interview. He carefully parsed the difference between Malcolm X’s brand of resistance and that espoused by the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger. He said, “i don’t think [Malcolm X] was ever taking a fight to his oppressor. He was saying: we should be able to defend ourselves if we need to.”
Boyz n the Hood
“It wasn’t a movie to me,” Ryan Coogler told Indiewire, recounting one of his formative experiences with black movies, “I was seeing black folks on a hundred foot screen. I was just devastated after Boyz.”
Coogler wasn’t the only black filmmaker influenced by Boyz N the Hood, the story of the cyclical nature of gang violence in South Central LA, directed by John Singleton. The film not only deeply influenced independent filmmaking and African-American movies, but the film also resonated in the broader culture. Combined with the emerging popularity of N.W.A., Boyz was one of the first black films to have a profound impact on teens across the country. The style, music, and even slang from the film quickly worked its way into cities all over America.
Critics have often noted the clear connection between Boyz and Coogler’s first film, Fruitvale Station, as the films share obvious connective tissue. Both films humanize young black men in a way that isn’t always the case with black movies.
Though it may be less obvious, there is also a great deal of thematic connection between Black Panther and Boyz N the Hood. Both films explore the role of violence in their respective societies, and question how the cyclical nature of violence can be brought to an end. When it comes to black movies, it’s hard to find two that are more different in scope, but they are actually incredibly similar on a visceral level.
Do the Right Thing
Coogler once complimented Spike Lee by saying, “When I wanted to make movies, I wanted to make a movie that felt like home and felt as real as Do the Right Thing.” His admiration for the film is so deep that he staged a live reading of the script in 2014. Spike Lee’s breakout hit, the 1989 film remains a staple of independent cinema almost thirty years later. Not only is it considered one of the greatest African-American movies of all time, but is a cornerstone of American cinema, regularly appearing on lists like AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies.”
It’s clear that Coogler has taken that idea of a “real” setting to heart with Black Panther. Wakanda, with its meticulous production design and carefully researched wardrobe, feels as fully realized as Spike Lee’s Brooklyn. Coogler told Variety that this is because Do the Right Thing and other films by Lee (as well as the films of Martin Scorsese) taught him how important it is for a director to connect with the subject matter of their films.
The desire for this level of authenticity in his filmmaking led Coogler to make a pilgrimage to Africa before he began filming. Coogler saw that this wasn’t just an African-American movie, but also an African movie. And to get that part right he was going to need additional perspective.
Coogler’s need to put his personal stamp on Marvel intellectual property also led to his bringing in a number of collaborators from earlier films onto Black Panther. Fruitvale Station DP Rachel Morrison, Creed production designer Hannah Beachler, and his favorite editor Michael Shawver were all brought onboard. Chadwick Boseman spoke to this in the same Variety interview. He said, “I feel like it’s definitely a Ryan Coogler film. There are certain choices that are made that are directly his stamp on it.”
Another Spike Lee film that had an impact on Black Panther is School Daze. Lesser known than Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing, School Daze tells the story of the intersection of race and class at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in musical form. Black Panther costume designer Ruth Carter worked on School Daze early in her career (as well as a host of African-American movies helmed by other prominent directors), and brought some of the same ideas to these two drastically different films.
Both films engage with “Afrofuturism” in their subject matter. Afrofuturism can be defined as, “literature and art that meld African-derived histories, cosmologies, and technologies to imagine new possibilities for black survival and social order.” A number of black films have engaged with Afrofuturism through the years, and while this idea is perhaps more clearly evident in Black Panther than in School Daze, Carter feels that she has been exploring the idea throughout her career. Carter recently told The Atlantic, “I feel like...if I am to embrace that term, and I am going to call myself an Afrofuturist, I can say that I’ve been that my entire career.”
Obviously, the fictional nation of Wakanda offered Carter an opportunity to explore melding traditional African styles with science fiction. Thanks to the heightened reality of the musical genre and the thematic action of the film -- revolving around issues like apartheid and black socioeconomics -- Carter was able to incorporate Afrofuturist concepts into her wardrobe design in School Daze as well.
While few big budget black movies are greenlit in a given year, far fewer black movies are given the opportunity to explore this aesthetic framework.
While films set in America offered some templates for Black Panther’s approach to Afrofuturism, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that African films offered a wealth of inspiration for Coogler. He has said that Baraka and Samsara, two non-narrative documentary features directed by Ron Fricke released two decades apart, deeply influenced him.
At a talk at the British Film Institute Coogler spoke highly of these works:
“For us the ancient nature of everything was actually more interesting [in making Black Panther] than the futuristic element. We thought that would be more unique, if we could make it like an ancient African place that had built on itself for a long time -- if that makes sense -- [these films] found a way to make things look fantastical but still feel real, like places you can go to. We wanted Wakanda to feel like a place you can go to, a place you could catch a plane to right now.”
Both films feature spiritual and cultural traditions of indigenous people around the world, offering beautiful footage of various peoples across six continents. Most relevant to Black Panther, Baraka chronicles the Maasai people of Kenya, who directly influenced Ruth Carter’s costume design. That being said, these aren’t “black movies” or “Asian films,” but rather attempts to get at the universality shared among all people through some of the most striking images ever to hit the big screen.
There are also a number of narrative works of African cinema that influenced Black Panther. Ousmane Sembene is one of Africa’s most prominent filmmakers; Sembene was a crucial voice in carving out a space for “black movies” by filmmakers actually from the African continent. His final film, 2004’s Mooladé is regarded as a masterpiece. Sembene is known for focusing on the cultural clash between old ways and new that is happening all over post-colonial Africa. This same thematic clash is examined throughout Black Panther.
Moolaadé takes on the difficult subject of ritual female circumcision. The film’s protagonist Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) crusades against the practice despite the protests of elders in her community. The inhumane practice carries a 15% mortality rate and ensures lifelong pain for survivors. Collé battles the elders, and in response, they take draconian measure to preserve their disappearing way of life and exert control over the women of their town. While Sembene’s allegiance is obviously with Collé, this film serves as the final chapter in his career-long fascination with the push and pull between tradition and progress.
This tension between the old and the new can be seen in many African-American movies, from Fences to Jungle Fever. But African films can explore this concept with greater depth, as African culture has thousands of years of tradition to draw from, as opposed to the few centuries of history in American culture.
Another, more recent, African film that influenced Black Panther is Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. Film School Rejects has pointed out parallels between events in this film and actions Killmonger takes in Black Panther. Additionally, images from the film directly inspired the production design, as Coogler recently told BFI:
“Timbuktu was a big one. I loved that movie. We used a lot of architecture from Timbuktu in the ancient Mali empire, looking at it as a place of African excellence, pre-tyndallization -- pre-European colonization for sure. Timbuktu took place around some old structures. The very interesting decorative scaffolding that you see on almost all the buildings, we took and put it in Wakanda for the Dogon tribe. The Mali empire was a big influence for the tribes of Wakanda.”
Thematically, there is also a connection between Black Panther and Timbuktu. As Coogler’s film is about the struggle for Wakanda, Timbuktu is about the struggle for the titular city. Islamic extremists have occupied the city and raised the jihadist flag as the film begins. Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino), a local cattle herder, finds himself at the brutal mercy of newly installed Sharia Law.
In Timbuktu, the idea of a black movie clashes with what we often consider a Middle-Eastern film, as struggle against radical Islam plays out in a very different context than many Americans are used to.
Mother of George
Coogler himself has commented that the cultural pride exhibited in Mother of George both moved and motivated him. If you look at images from the film, particularly those that feature the colorful traditional costumes, it’s easy to see what inspired him about the 2013 indie film.
Like in Black Panther, the costumes of Mother of George are used to project an image of boldness and strength in the film’s characters. The Nigerian film by Andrew Dosunmu follows the trials and tribulations of a couple who relocate from Nigeria to Brooklyn to manage a small restaurant. The couple struggles with fertility as they adjust to their new home. The film’s compelling visuals reinforce the deep exploration of cultural shifts and the dislocation that comes with moving to a new home. As with many black movies, the film examines the impact of the African diaspora on a personal level.
It is no secret that James Bond films deeply inspired Ryan Coogler as he developed his approach to Black Panther. The parallels aren’t hard to see, as The Hollywood Reporter’s Richard Newby points out in his review, “How Black Panther Subverts the Spy Genre.” He begins by pointing out that both films take place in a world involving, “the threat of global crisis, high-tech gadgets, a scarred villain with designs on world domination, and a mysterious hero who surrounds himself with beautiful, deadly women.”
Black Panther by no means marks the first time black filmmakers have offered their take on the spy genre. Shaft and other blaxploitation films certainly owe a lot to Bond, and 007’s influence can be felt in a number of black movies throughout the 70s and 80s. One of the best examples of this is 1973’s Black Caesar.
Black Caesar was marketed as “The Godfather of Harlem” upon its release. Given the familial struggles in Black Panther, you could read the film as The Godfather meets James Bond set in mythic Africa.
The film follows Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) as he grows from a New York teen being hassled by local cops to the head of a sprawling criminal empire. As with T’Challa in Black Panther, Tommy must reckon with his past as he arrives in a position of great power.
The Color Purple
Lupita Nyong’o was recently asked what black movies influenced her most as an artist, and she chose Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple. She used the opportunity to talk about the importance of representation, saying, “Possibilities are born when you see yourself reflected.”
Representation is clearly important to Coogler, and the entire crew behind Black Panther. It isn’t just that the film is Marvel’s first “black movie” or that it features a predominantly black cast and crew. Representation in this film extends to theme and content. Black Panther addresses an ever present tension in black culture so often explored in the greatest African-American movies: the tension between African and Western traditions.
The value of representation has not just present in the film itself, but also in its promotion and release. Black audiences are clearly hungry for representation, and an opportunity to turn screenings of Black Panther into memorable events. The carefully researched and orchestrated representation in the film shows that Coogler and his crew were considering the meaning that a film of this magnitude would carry for many African-Americans. Coogler, Nyong’o, and other millennials involved with the project couldn’t help but be reminded of their reaction to a hit film from the previous generation that reflected on the African-American experience: The Color Purple.
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