I don’t think I’ve experienced a film phenomenon like The Black Panther since 1977 when I stood in a line for the first Star Wars movie. Recently I went downtown for the matinee of the new film only to find that the next two shows were sold out. I bought a ticket for the third. The line for my show was so long I worried I might not get in the 300-seat theater.
I am a fan of the Star Wars movies but it is fair to say that The Black Panther gives new meaning to the concept of the dark side of the force.
I recently heard the Reverend Chris Battle give a presentation on “White Jesus and Black History.” He spoke about how our dominant culture tends to make darkness and blackness synonymous with evil. Because he is adept at audiovisual presentations a picture of Darth Vader appeared on the screen behind him as he said this.
Rev. Battle then showed an image of an anthropologist’s reconstruction of a first century Jew reminding us that the historical Jesus was a dark man. In the Vatican, the Louvre and other museums, Jesus is often portrayed as lily white even though evidence suggests otherwise. The history of Western religious art supports a vision of white supremacy whereas anthropologists remind us that Jesus was an embodiment of the dark side of the force.
Sometimes Star Wars seems to reinforce dualism, the idea that light must destroy darkness. After all Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia wear white. The evil emperor and Darth Vader wear black. However, in the latest movie The Last Jedi there was a lot of emphasis on bringing balance to the force, balancing light and darkness, in much the same way that every 24 hours is a balance between night and day. This balance between night and day, winter and spring, is what makes life flourish and all things grow.
Without offering any spoilers let me say that The Black Panther has similar insights into the need to move beyond a strictly good/evil, darkness/light, black/white paradigm. Sometimes the hero does the wrong thing. Sometimes the villain has a valid point. The force is strong in both of them. As Dr. King once said, “There’s some bad in the best of us and some good in the rest of us.” In the 1960’s the Black Panthers was an activist group that many white people feared. Today The Black Panther is selling out in theaters across America and could well be the top grossing film of all time.
In America angel food cake is light and devil food cake is dark. The Black Panther turns the tables by meeting white supremacy with Black Power. Where the dominant culture tells us we must choose between black and white The Black Panther reminds us that we can have our cake and eat it too.