Black Panther and the Rise of Afrofuturism
By the time Black Panther is released in theatres, one of the terms you’ll hear a lot will be “Afrofuturism”. Here’s what you need to know about it.
BY Wayne Cheong | Feb 17, 2018 | Film & TV
First coined by Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, Black to the Future, the term, “Afrofuturism” has been around longer than you think. As an opposition to the predominantly white science-fiction genre, Afrofuturism is, quite simply, the black experience seen through a sci-fi lens (now Afrofuturism is, according to Dr Kirsten Zemke, better defined as an “aesthetic”). Dery questioned why there was a dearth of black writers in sci-fi even though sci-fi tropes and African-American history bears similarities: alien abduction and slaves shipped off to the New World.
Thanks to Marvel’s Black Panther, an open-minded public will get to see what happens when Africa is given autonomy over itself without being colonised? Wakanda is the answer—an African nation that has closed itself off from the rest of the world to protect its valuable resource that is vibranium, a metallic element that is “stronger than steel at only a third of its weight”. With a precious reserve of vibranium and intentional isolation, Wakanda thrived and became independently advanced, a subversion to the stereotype of Africa being primitive.
Which is needed now more than ever given the race relations in the US. Shows like Luke Cage, Black Lightning, reflected the political landscape with Black Lives Matter, the rise of Alt-Right movement and lack of representation in Hollywood. And with Black Panther, while more-or-less grounded, is a heightened fantastical inspiration of black empowerment. The movie boasts a mostly black cast; it’s design and fashion are Africa-inspired; the Wakanda language is Xhosa and its written script is based on “Nigerian pictographs from the fourth and fifth centuries”. Afrofuturism is the intersection of the traditional and the technological, where it’s a way of holding on to a storied history while aspiring for a future of possibilities; bright, better and magnificent.
Here are cultural jumping points to get you started on the wonderful world of Afrofuturism:
Even before Afrofuturism had a name, Sun Ra was already living it. Taking Egyptian symbolism, space motifs and jazz, Herman Poole Blount—the Earth name of the musician behind Sun Ra, who also claim to hail from Saturn—developed a style that is out of this world. He has passed from this mortal coil but his band, the Arkestra, continues to perform.
OCTAVIA BUTLER, SAMUEL R DELANY and STEVEN BARNES
Heavily mentioned in Dery’s essay, this trio of writers are also known as the Big Three of Afrofuturism. Recommended reading: Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy and Kindred; Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories and Driftglass and Barnes’ Zulu Heart.
Monáe’s love for sci-fi is evident in her music but the scope of her vision is staggering. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Monáe conceptualises a seven-part series about the android Cindi Moon (Monáe’s alter ego). So far, only the first four instalments were played out over her three albums—Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase); The ArchAndroid; The Electric Lady.
LINA IRIS VIKTOR
Using gold, black and blue as her primary hues in her work, the British-Liberian artist puts herself into her work. Garbed in the splendour of royal raiment with a “futuristic edge”, Viktor evokes “black girl magic”, that someone like Viktor and anyone who looks like her is worthy of your reverence. (Currently, Viktor has accused Kendrick Lamar of using her artwork without her consent for his music video, “All the Stars”.)
THE WIZ (1978)
If you forget, for a moment, that this is a reimagining of the Wizard of Oz, the movie The Wiz can be seen, for the most part, as a cousin of the Afrofuturism genre. While Vann R Newkirk II from Seven Scribes points out several elements of “the Black urban condition” in the movie, to us, the Emerald City Sequence best portrays visual aspects of Afrofuturism in its costumes and setting, to the background of big band funk.