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The past, present and Afrofuturism of 'Black Panther'

Commentary: Art like "Black Panther" overturns stereotypes to reclaim the past and reimagine the future. To understand the film's power, you need to understand Afrofuturism.

There's a secret at the heart of Marvel's superhero adventure "Black Panther": the African nation of Wakanda, bursting with advanced technology and hidden from the world.

Afrofuturist icon Janelle Monae at the Los Angeles world premiere of "Black Panther" in January.

Alberto E. Rodriguez

But that's not the only thing this Afrofuturist epic uncovers. By drawing directly from Africa as its source material, "Black Panther" gives us a new way to think about a past, present and future rarely seen in mainstream movies. (Here's CNET's review of the film, which opened in US theaters on Friday and earlier worldwide.)

Marvel's latest superhero flick is the perfect example of the genre and movement known as Afrofuturism. It combines elements of sci-fi, fantasy and African history and culture to create a new world to explore and escape into.

The term Afrofuturism was coined in the early 1990s to refer to an analysis of African-American sci-fi. But it's since become a method for speculative thought, imagining "what if" scenarios in fiction, music and even architecture that reclaim and reinvigorate depictions of the black experience. By re-examining historical events through an African lens, we can more deeply understand where we are today and, in sci-fi creations like the high-tech culture of Wakanda, imagine possibilities beyond the status quo.

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"Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman, who plays T'Challa, said he expressly thought about how he should approach his accent as Wakanda's king from a purely African perspective.

"He's the ruler of a nation," Boseman told CNET in a November interview. "And if he's the ruler of a nation, he has to speak to his people. He has to galvanize his people. And there's no way I could speak to my people, who have never been conquered by Europeans, with a European voice."

Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman on the set of Marvel's "Black Panther".

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios 2018

The "Afro" in the Afrofuturism of "Black Panther," isn't just evident in the predominantly black cast, also featuring Angela Bassett as T'Challa's mother, Ramonda; Michael B. Jordan as zealous villain Killmonger; and Lupita Nyong'o as spy Nakia.

It's everywhere in the aesthetics, from the vibrant design of the sets and costumes to the fictional rituals of Black Panther's home, Wakanda. Look at the ochre earth that covers the floor of the Wakandan throne room. Or the thatched roofs on the country's gleaming skyscrapers. Or gadgets in the form of traditional necklaces and beads. Even the natural landscapes of Wakanda draw on the variety of Africa's beauty, with rolling green hillsides and magnificent snowcapped mountains taking the place of the stereotypical parched desert.

King T'Challa's throne room is an example of Wakanda's combination of African heritage and comic book technology.

Marvel Studios

Yet Afrofuturism is more than a visual style bringing African influences into the mainstream. Even before the first (white) men walked on the moon in the 1960s, African-American writers, artists and musicians like Sun Ra looked to space and to the fantasies of science fiction to find the freedom denied them on Earth.

"Afrofuturism does a couple of things," filmmaker, author and futurist Ytasha L. Womack explained in a keynote speech at Canada's McGill University in 2015. "It affirms the agency of people who pull from aspects of the African or black experience in the future ... but it also recovers this lost history, heritage and perspectives that aren't talked about in our education system. You can pull from these different aspects to shape your present -- and the future."

Representation of the historical black experience on screen has often focused on slavery, from 1915's "The Birth of a Nation" to 2013's "12 Years a Slave." In the present, black people are regularly depicted as passive victims of police brutality and gang warfare who come from violent, impoverished communities the world over.

In sci-fi's future or fantasy settings, black people frequently don't exist: How many are there in "Blade Runner 2049", for example? In sci-fi, people of colour are often replaced by green- or blue-hued aliens or other fantastic beings as a proxy, from "Avatar," "Alien Nation" and "Bright" to "Blade Runner" and "X-Men."

Lupita Nyong'o (left) and Letitia Wright (right) fire up Wakandan high technology.

Marvel Studios

In other words, humanity has been living with a Westernised narrative.  But in "Black Panther,"  the black people and culture we see are very different from stereotypical representations. Wakanda's past is free of colonisation and enslavement. Wakandans of the present are active citizens with agency over their country's resources. And they combine their chief resource, Vibranium, with their knowledge and ingenuity to develop futuristic technology outstripping the rest of the world.

"One of the things that we really wanted to make sure about Wakanda is the technology, and I think that that's something that all the fans want to see," the film's production designer, Hannah Beachler, told Black Girl Nerds. "The other thing that we really talked about was keeping the tradition of several different African tribes. We really delved into what that was and how we mix this new and this old."

For Beachler, Afrofuturism means taking a familiar narrative and "mixing it up and reowning it ... going back to an older time and modernizing it, and reclaiming it, and owning it in a different way."

Art meets the Afrofuture

You'll find Afrofuturism in fiction such as Octavia Butler's 1976 time-travelling slave narrative novel "Kindred", or more recently, the novel "Who Fears Death" by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor. Set in a postapocalyptic future version of Sudan, "Who Fears Death" is scheduled to be made into an HBO series produced by "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin.

Even before academic Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism in 1993, we saw it in the work of artists like otherworldly jazz performer Sun Ra. His experimental music, extraterrestrial-inspired cosmic philosophy and flamboyant performances produced works like the psychedelic 1974 film "Space Is the Place," in which he comes to us as a "Universal Being" not of this dimension.

Sun Ra In Detroit

Sun Ra and his Arkestra look to the future in 1978.

Getty Images

African-American singer, songwriter and record producer George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic fame shared many of the cosmic viewpoints of Sun Ra. His music was infused with an Afrofuturist vision of protest, hope, intergalactic mythology and fun, and he was one of the many who laid the groundwork for the evolution of electro. In the 1980s, hip-hop ambassador Afrika Bambaataa appeared as a being somewhere between a robot and an ancient Egyptian godhead for his influential 1982 hit "Planet Rock."

More recently, my personal favourite, Janelle Monae, adopted an android alter ego to take us on a tour of futuristic museums paying homage to rebel artists on the albums "The ArchAndroid" and "Electric Lady."

"I watched 'Metropolis' and was really inspired by it," Monae told The Irish Times. "Then I started to get into 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner', and I started to look at the android as the form of the other, all the discrimination that the android faced in these films. I could relate to that, the idea of being the minority within the majority."

Monae's next album and film will be titled "Dirty Computer" and will continue to explore sci-fi themes. No wonder she was the perfect choice to appear in "Hidden Figures," the award-winning 2016 movie reclaiming the contribution of African-American women to the space race.

By looking to both the past and the future and imagining new possibilities in stories like "Black Panther," we can inspire the present. At Afro Futures_UK, a UK-based collective of researchers, artists, programmers and activists, we explore new ways of seeing ourselves. Through seminars, workshops and social media, our black-led group aims to get more people involved in science, technology and the arts to do our bit toward self-determination and liberation.

As "Black Panther" sinks its teeth into huge box office success, Afrofuturism is now mainstream. A smash hit Marvel blockbuster made by a black cast, director and filmmakers should pave the way to change how Hollywood portrays Africa, the birthplace of humanity. That's the irresistible freedom of Afrofuturism.

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