As Marvel Company’s Black Panther film dominates the pop culture scene; it sheds light to a genre that has survived mainly along the edges of pop culture for decades even before Mark Dery’s 1993 essay, Black to the Future. His essay came seventeen years after Octavia Butler wrote about a time-traveling slave in his 1976 novel, Kindred. The works of jazz performer, Sun Ra, are extraterrestrial and experimental, his afrofuturist vision and philosophy produced works like the 1974 film, Space in the Place. Also in his 1982 hit, Planet Rock, Afrika Bambaataa was seen between an ancient Egyptian godhead and a robot.
Afrofuturism have become popular over the past 25 years, but its recent dramatic expansion is credited to the success of Black Panther, the first superhero film written and directed by blacks and with a majority black cast. Black Panther is unique for its utopian vision, Afrocentric storyline, and its alternative African history, something new in Hollywood’s picture of Africa.
No doubt, Black Panther is the best expression of Afrofuturism in years, Wakanda, is an African country that has never been colonized; it has an isolated economy that is rich in technology and a nearly indestructible element, vibranium. So wealthy and innovative was Wakanda that the film’s villain Killmonger radically plan to conquer and liberate the world with Wakanda’s hidden resources and some of us agree with him.
In Umberto Eco’s ‘The Myth of Superman’, he pointed out the temporality of comic-book characters and narratives. Eco’s notion is at play in Marvel’s comical universe. From Iron Man to Superman, Thor, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Marvel’s superheroes do not have lasting consequences and neither do their communities. There is always a counter-narrative event that brings us back to ‘the present’: the chaotic baseline in the life of a superhero and his community. Marvel’s intent here is clear, continuity in narratives will effect changes in the world and this is not a price Marvel is ready to pay as it will divert the comic from its baseline, a point it must always return to for stories to appeal to a new audience.
Looking at Marvel’s franchise history, will they continue the Afrofuturistic story of an African superhero and a self-determined, uncolonized black nation powerful enough to confront Western superiority? Towards the end of Black Panther, T’challa decided that Wakanda will no longer shy away from global politics and power. However, Marvel’s Afrofuturism and Wakanda may not attain the heights that the aesthetics of Black Panther prophesies. Let’s face it, Ryan Cogler’s Black Panther is a franchise and Marvel’s cycled narrative will hinder the progress of its Afrofuturism, a genre that is supposed to infuse futuristic themes in black history and culture.
Unlike science fiction, there is a socio-political undertone in Afrofuturism, it is a cultural movement, a philosophy of science and history that challenges historical events, culture and development of black Africans. Afrofuturism is meant to techno-culturally envision African and African Diaspora experiences beyond history while leaning on Afrocentrism. Black Panther is a fictional franchise embedded in history, a radical alternative to postcolonial Africa but Marvel cannot be trusted to continue that job.
While African audience excites over the existence of Wakanda and Black Panther’s afrofufurist prospect in a World dominated by Western forces, Wakanda in Black Panther 2 might be invaded by alien forces or something chaotic enough to bring T’challa and Wakanda back to the status quo to keep Marvel’s franchise alive. Against T’challa’s promise, we may not be able to see a black nation influencing global politics and power.
There is a lot to expect from Afrofuturism in the coming years and less from Marvel Studio. In a Post-Black Panther era, Ava DuVernay will be adopting Octavia Butler’s 1987 book, Dawn which centers on a black woman who resurrects the human race by joining forces with aliens, for the screen. DuVernay’s afrofuturist signature extends to Jay Z’s music video for Family Feud set in 2444, an aesthetic linked to Missy Elliot, Erykah Badu, Solange Knowles and Beyonce’s Lemonade.
Janelle Monáe has been Afrofuturist for years, in her multi-album Metropolis saga, Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s alter ego is a messianic android sent back to lead an uprising against an oppressive regime. In April, 2018, Monáe released Dirty Computer, a new album with a 50-minute‘ emotion picture’ and was aired before some Black Panther screenings.
Though the genre may not survive in Marvel’s comical universe, Black Panther has brought Afrofuturism to mainstream and we are grateful for that. Now, writers like Ta Nehisi Coates, Nnedi Okarafor and Directors like Ava Duvernay can create original Afrofuturistic narratives with lasting consequences.