'We are ready. We've been ready:' Black Panther ushers in a new wave of black sci-fi

Black Panther, Brown Girl Begins and A Wrinkle in Time are part of a new wave of films using African influences to present a more inclusive view of the future.

The Marvel film is one of several that smashes African stereotypes with dazzling visions of the future

Lupita Nyong'o, left, Chadwick Boseman, centre, and Danai Gurira in a scene from Black Panther. (Marvel Studios)

"Wakanda forever!"

It's the rallying cry of a proud African general and part of a new way of reimagining African culture and heroes on the big screen.

In Black Panther the woman leading the charge is played by Danai Gurira. Walking Dead fans know her as Michonne — the dreadlock warrior, eking out a life in the apocalyptic TV series.

In Black Panther, Gurira is bald, strong and loyal to T'Challa, the regal king of Wakanda, who moonlights as a superhero in a catsuit. 

Part of what sets the latest Marvel movie apart is the vibrant vision of an African country unscathed by colonization.

It's a fictional creation first dreamt up by comic creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s. 

In the real world there is no Wakanda, but Gurira said Black Panther highlights Africa's rich culture in other ways. 

"It's synthesizing a lot of the beauty and the strengths of the continent that's we've never seen, but they've always been there."

Gurira, left, stars as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther's private bodyguards. (Marvel Studios)

While there have been black superheroes on the silver screen before, there never has been a comic-book movie quite as Afrocentric as Black Panther.

Behind the camera is director Ryan Coogler, a black filmmaker who first burst onto the scene with Fruitvale Station, a film about the day in the life of a victim of a police shooting.  

$200M budget and A-list cast

With the full support of Marvel studios and a $200 million US budget, Coogler filled out the cast with an impressive array of actors, including Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Kaluuya and Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger, the usurper to the king's throne.

A decade ago a commitment to an African-inspired superhero with a nearly all-black cast may have seemed radical, but if reports of pre-ticket sales are any indicator, Black Panther arrives at a time when audiences are clamouring for greater diversity. 

Marvel's Black Panther could be be the start of a Hollywood culture shift and may signal the arrival of afrofuturism as a cultural phenomenon. Critics have chastised Hollywood's superhero movies for under-representing people of colour and restricting them to minor roles — Black Panther bucks the trend with its black director and a nearly all-black cast. Advocates are ecstatic and see its promotion as part of "afrofuturism": a growing genre aimed at changing the perception of black culture and how it's portrayed 4:07

However, Gurira said the interest in Black Panther goes beyond the African-American audience.

"Nobody has seen this imagery and everyone black, white, questions why. Why do we only see things from one perspective? We are ready. We've been ready."

Black Panther's power source: Afrofuturism

Part of the power of Black Panther's imagery comes from Afrofuturism, a movement that fuses African culture within a futuristic narrative. The terms was coined in the 1990s but musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton's Parliament were some of Afrofuturisms pioneers.

Author and filmmaker Ytasha Womack said Afrofuturism is " a way of looking at the future or an alternate reality, but through a black cultural lens."

Womack said part of the appeal is how Afrofuturism offers a sense of possibilities that challenges the negatives images that are all too often associated with Africa.

"It's this idea that you can reinvent yourself. That has often pushed black cultures forward. It certainly helped people to push past any sense of limitations that they may have experienced."

Black Panther is just one of a number of films offering a different vision of the future. Coming soon in March, director Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time, a multiracial adaptation of the much-loved novel, starring Oprah and Storm Reid.

Like Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time also features a legion of strong female characters, another Afrofuturistic signature according to Womack.

"There is an element where they recognize that women are a part of this society and that even a fictitious character like Black Panther can't exist in a world where women are marginalized "

Opening in Canada as A Wrinkle in Time hits screens is another vision of the future centred on strong black women.

Inspired by the science fiction stories of Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl Begins takes place in the near future where the elite of Toronto are protected by a force field.

Carving out a living in the desolate wastelands known as The Burn the Caribbean community call on spirits to save them.

Chadwick Boseman, left, and Michael B. Jordan, right, in Black Panther. (Marvel Studios)

Canadian director Sharon Lewis grew up loving science fiction, but when she tried to find funding for her film she said Hollywood North was more interested in telling stories of the past.

"It felt like if I had chosen to do a slave narrative that that might have been an easier path. But to put forward something where black people exist in the future I think it feels threatening." 

Another shade of beauty

But Lewis persisted. She cobbled together funding, shooting the film on a shoestring. For her young female lead, Lewis cast Mouna Traoré.

"As soon as she walked into the audition we were like, 'Wow,' because she's tall, she's gorgeous, she's dark skinned. That was really, really important to me to have a lead actress that represents another diversity. Another sort of shade of beauty."

Brown Girl Begins director Sharon Lewis talks to Eli Glasner about the Caribbean sci-fi film 15 years in the making. (Sharon Wu/CBC)

Traoré shares the screen with Emmanuel Kabongo, an actor viewers of Frankie Drake Mysteries may recognize. Kabongo, who was born in Congo, sees his industry at a turning point.  

"People want to feel part of something. So movies like Black Panther or Brown Girl Begins are very positive message to say we can also be heroes. People can also look up at us."

The question remains whether the latest wave of black-led sci-fi visions are here to stay. 

The recent news that the showrunners of the Game of Thrones series will be creating a new series of Star Wars films was a reminder of how the genre is dominated by white male creators

With the success of filmmakers such as Get Out's Jordan Peele that may be starting to change. 

But the industry will be watching Black Panther's box office results closely to see whether the investment in new voices pays off. 

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Arts reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national arts reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.