I often tell people in any introduction before a new audience, that “…I am a geek and a nerd and they’re not the same thing” – that will never be more evident than in this piece!
I have been waiting 40 years for the Black Panther film to come out. I have had the poster from the film, with T’Challa on his throne, as my iPhone wallpaper since it was available nearly two years ago.
After I saw another
film I love, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I was waiting for friends who had joined the mad rush of pee-strained viewers queuing for the bathroom. I found myself just staring at the poster for the Black Panther movie in the lobby. I wasn’t
thinking anything per se, just captivated - somehow mesmerised by the collective imagery of the poster. A protagonist, his family and advisors and of course, those villains hell-bent on mayhem; the same as many posters for many films, but somehow unique in
I am sure there is a word for being in a state of sheer joy and simultaneously near tears, but every time I think about this film, I am there…right on the edge. I’m somehow unable to assimilate the feelings of joy and pride
with the regret of four decades of waiting and the sense that in mere days, those years of yearning will be met and the fear that my expectations for myself and my society in the future, will redouble.
It’s not accurate to say I am going to see me on the screen, but I am going to a film where
black is regal, black is powerful, black is intelligent, black is diplomatic, black is a complex and three-dimensional character with an arc that doesn’t circle around constant tragedy and a struggle to define one’s humanity. In Black
Panther, sophisticated humanity and advanced civilisation is the core of their character.
T’Challa’s native country, Wakanda, is one that exists as a neo-colonial costume ball in the minds of those in positions of global power, “it’s
a third world country… textiles, shepherds… cool outfits” states CIA agent Everett K. Ross when asked what he knows about Wakanda.
T’Challa is a character who code switches moment to moment, and not just between Black Panther
and the King of Wakanda, but between diplomat and defender, monarch and global superhero…and he does this while being authentic in every context.
I have spent my life trying to pull this off.
I have constantly failed.
I wear a suit
when I leave the house most days, because I know without it I turn from psychologist or at least “business man” to super-predator. Even as I wear my suit, I know that the costume is unconvincing to many. I am a figure of intrigue at best, mockery
often and – usually – fear… but rarely am I seen as I actually am.
I attended a meeting recently with the global head of a professional services business that my organisation, APS, has been working with for several years. I waited
in their swanky, top floor client suites and before the meeting I decided to stretch my legs. As I left the swish meeting room and walked down the hall, I was arrested by a stranger, he grabbed my arm and without so much as a “hello”, he said in
raised voice, “There’s no bloody sparkling water in here.”
He didn’t let go.
I know that many reading this, especially those who aren’t minorities, will think that the correct response is outrage, ripping my arm
away from his grip (and in comic book style, ripping his arm off), while yelling, “Don’t you know who I am?!” or at least “I don’t work here.”
Instead, I stood and looked as this 5’5” man who gripped me
like a high-street security guard manhandling a misbehaving (6’9”) child, and I smiled: “I’m so sorry… I’ll get someone to sort that…” and walked purposefully away from his grasp.
On the way to
the bathroom, only necessary for splashing cold water on my face, I passed a staff member, easily identifiable by their name badges and shiny, polyester uniforms and sorted his sparkling water deficit.
I turned the other cheek, because I had to protect
myself and I knew every reaction that would feel good, would hurt me and my people – my team at APS as well as every other black person this man ever encountered.
I returned to my suite and when the ‘big boss’ arrived and decided he
wanted a room with a view, we moved to a different room. He’s a man who attracts a lot of attention in his office and when we passed the “no sparkling water” room, I nodded in as dignified a manner as I could muster as I watched the man and
saw the penny drop. Any colour in his face seemed to evaporate, his client presentation went from his key thought to a distraction as he watched fixated while the 'big boss' and I walked away smiling and chatting as friends.
I hope for his own self-preservation,
that my actions have assured that this man makes one less assumption with those around him, and is less dangerous for it.
It’s the only way turning the other cheek feels like a reward.
Maybe this is as close to T’Challa as I’ll
I’ve wished I was T’Challa for most of my life, I wish I exuded his cool dignity and mastered his ability to channel the under-estimation of the world into an internal resolve and exquisite nobility. Instead, like many of my peers,
the communal micro-castigation of others wounds me and undermines my conviction and my belief in my own capacity. And it makes it so on some days, I can’t see my own reflection in the mirror through the confusing morass of other people’s first
A bump on the shoulder and I’m back in the room. My relieved friends are now ready to leave; me, starring at the Black Panther film poster, less so.
I look at the poster again and the reflection of my face sits over T’Challa’s
and again, there are tears in my eyes.
I’m 47 years old and I feel as moved, vulnerable and uplifted as I’ve felt in forty years, looking at a poster for a film I see being about mastering an identity under assault as much as a kingdom
In that moment, I was reminded of a quote from the very end of the Stargate TV series that itself references one of my favourite childhood authors, Isaac Asimov (I told you I was a geek-nerd). It says, “Science fiction is an existential
metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence,
has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’”
Maybe this is even more true when after years of waiting, you finally see the very best version of you starring back from a poster.
I start to walk away…
my friends are talking to me, they want to know what I think of Star Wars, but all I can think is, “Maybe, just maybe, I can be a bit more like T’Challa.”