There are a lot of reasons to be excited for “Black Panther,” which arrives in theaters on Feb. 16. If you’re a fan of Marvel’s unfolding cinematic universe, it’s a chance to see that franchise do something different, to pry itself away from the existing lineup and well-worn character grooves of the Avengers, and to play with a different visual style. If you love director Ryan Coogler and were pleasantly surprised by how well he revitalized the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed,” “Black Panther” is simply your third chance to see a new Coogler feature, and one that reteams him with his muse, Michael B. Jordan, who is also getting to do something different with this movie: namely, playing supervillain Erik Killmonger. And if you’ve been starving to see more women and people of color in superhero movies, stumbling onto Wakanda is like going from famine to feast.
I fall into every single one of those categories, and Feb. 16 is very much marked on my calendar. And until then, I’m using “Black Panther’s” release as an excuse to brush up on a genre that I’ve loved every time I’ve dipped into it, but that I don’t know as well as I should: Afrofuturism. “Black Panther” may be the biggest-budget expression of the genre, and certainly the most mass-marketed. But Afrofuturism, which broadly combines science fiction, fantasy and magical realism with African and disapora cultures, religious practices and history in ways that often shake up both those genres and the settled narratives of history and race, has a much longer tradition.
So while I’m stocking up on my Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin (and welcoming any suggestions the audience might want to offer), I wanted to pass along three of my personal gateways into the genre in case “Black Panther” is your first encounter with Afrofuturism.
For younger readers: If you’re going to take a middle-school or high-school student in your life to “Black Panther,” I highly recommend giving them “The Ear, the Eye and the Arm,” by Nancy Farmer first. The novel is set in Zimbabwe more than a century in the future, and the world Farmer invented is more anarchic and unnerving than the world of Wakanda. The country has advanced technology and a sophisticated economy, but it’s also wildly unequal and defined by clashes between the government’s security forces and powerful gangs. The narrative is largely split between two sets of characters: the children of Zimbabwe’s security chief, and the supernatural detectives hired by their father after they’re kidnapped. I first read “The Ear, The Eye and the Arm” when it was released in 1994, and what stuck with me most was the younger characters’ sense of curiosity: a lot of their elders are terrified by the world, but they’re eager to get out and explore it.
For superhero fans who welcome a more expansive execution of the genre: For all the ways it seems like it will look and feel different from previous Marvel movies, I’m not asking “Black Panther” to split superhero movies wide open: Coogler is an amazing director, but I think he was probably hired because he could advance what Marvel does without blowing it up completely and making the rest of the franchise look flimsy and stupid. Don’t expect too much from big, corporate franchises, and you’ll be fine. That’s what novels like Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death?” are for! “Who Fears Death” is about the consequences of weaponized rape in the Sudan. Okorafor’s heroine, Onyesonwu, is the product of one of those sexual assaults, but rather than being destroyed by her origins and the social stigma that surrounds them, her experiences become the source of her particular — and particularly powerful — magic. As a bonus, HBO is developing “Who Fears Death?” as a series, with George R.R. Martin as a producer; read it now, and you’ll be ahead of the curve.
For people who want extravagant visuals: Janelle Monaé is so thoroughly established as part of the mainstream cultural firmament now — and with good reason, she can do pretty much anything — that I think folks no longer think of her primarily as a science fiction artist, which is kind of a shame. Her earlier music videos, which really ought to be considered a series of short films, are more austere than the “Black Panther” universe, but they’re not less penetrating. In them, Monaé marries her blackness and femaleness to robotic strangeness, taking viewers through robot auctions and unsettling museums. Her work is a powerful reminder to never take any thing, or any person, at face value. Revolutionary potential is everywhere, all the time, and we all ought to keep an eye out for it.