In an era when being “radical” and “woke” are increasingly trendy, it is not surprising that Marvel’s new film Black Panther has ignited comparisons with the 1960’s political organization of the same name—the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP).
Founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, the BPP fought economic inequality, unequal education and police brutality with a political program emphasizing basic human rights, self-determination, armed self defense and a structural critique of inequality. The BPP’s history has been embraced by activists fighting against state violence in the Movement for Black Lives, and Panther imagery has been increasingly visible in pop culture due to Stanley Nelson’s popular 2015 documentary Vanguard of the Revolution, which was one of the highest rated programs on PBS, and Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl 50 performance widely understood to be a tribute to Panther women (and viewed by 111.9 million people).
In 2016, art exhibits, conferences, panels, reunions and discussions commemorated the BPP’s 50th anniversary. Simultaneously, the anticipation of witnessing the fictional autonomous African nation of Wakanda from Black Panther on the big screen was reaching fever pitch. Connections between the movie and the organization have proliferated; one movie theater even asked its patrons to show up “dressed up in cosplay as one of the film’s characters or dressed in all black with your ‘fro glowing and your black-gloved fists up, as an homage to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense of the 1960s and 1970s.”
A promotional film poster released last summer depicting T’Challa, king of Wakanda, posed regally in an elaborate chair emphasized the overlap—earning immediate comparisons to one of the BPP’s most iconic images: co-founder Huey Newton enthroned on a wicker peacock chair gripping a spear in one hand and a shotgun in the other.
The connections being drawn between Black Panther and the Black Panther Party reflect the intersections between art, comic books, music and history. As a collective of BPP historians, we wondered if film director Ryan Coogler, an Oakland native, was intentionally making a political statement in the poster. So we tracked down Arvell Jones, the artist who worked on the concept for the poster (and the first Black American comic book artist to create a major superhero for a major comic company)—and it turns out we were not too far off-track.
When we asked Jones about his inspiration for the concept art, he responded with a vivid story of growing up a fan of comic books and being inspired by Black Panthers; in particular, his life was transformed by both the superhero, Black Panther, who debuted in July 1966 as a part of the Fantastic Four comic book series, and the Black Panther Party.
Jones first encountered the iconic image of Newton as a teenager in Detroit. (The photograph initially appeared in “The Black Panther,” the BPP’s newspaper, on May 15, 1967.) He was struck by the image, and “looked at it all the time,” because its strength, pride and power was a sharp contrast to popular media images of African Americans as “buffoons, clown[s], comic relief [or] servant[s].” In the popular media, any rebellious characters that were depicted were quickly killed off. The organization and the Black Panther superhero offered an alternative message of autonomy and self-definition.
It was a historical connection that influenced Jones’ contemporary artistic vision. This idea guided his pencil when he developed the concept—which, to his surprise, informed the final poster.
The photo of Newton enthroned in the chair was taken at civil rights lawyer Beverly Axelrod’s home. Scholar Jane Rhodes described how Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver carefully staged the photo to include African symbols, to appeal to Black communities during a time of upsurge in pride in racial heritage. BPP co-founder Bobby Seale once explained that “this is really what Huey P. Newton symbolized with the Black Panther Party—he represented a shield for Black people against all the imperialism, the decadence, the aggression and the racism in the country. That’s what Huey P. Newton symbolized with us. That’s the way we projected it.”
Newton was arrested in October 1967 after a late night melee resulted in the death of a police officer and his own hospitalization with a bullet wound. Newton began a fight for his life, physically and to avoid the electric chair, and the Free Huey movement was born as the Panthers rallied supporters and argued that they had been targeted for police surveillance and harassment because of their radical politics.
Newton was incarcerated a few short months after the photo was taken; it became, in the words of Rhodes, “a powerful tool in Newton’s struggle for survival.” The photo served as an indispensable aid to the growth of the Free Huey movement due to the strength, power and resistance the imagery embodied. It was sold on posters and buttons and seized upon by the press. And it graced many Panther offices.
On September 10, 1968—two days after Newton escaped the death penalty and was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter—two off-duty police officers shot up the windows of the Panthers office in Oakland. The image of the bullet-riddled glass, with holes aimed squarely at Newton’s image, was widely circulated as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against police violence. This history informs the continued resonance of Newton’s poster at a time when the news is filled with stories of police bullets ripping through Black and brown bodies.
Incarnations of that photo of Newton have become a trope in the world of music. Newton’s photo has become part of a nationalist iconography embraced by hip-hop artists such as Outkast, Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy, Nas and Paris; even soul and funk artists, including Eddie Kendricks and Funkadelic, riffed on Newton’s wicker chair image in the 1970’s.
This connection is reflected in Black Panther. The trailer draws listeners back to the soundscape of 1970s music: Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” is the backdrop to Wakanda, a self-sustaining African nation built on the notion of self-determination and community control. It is the embodiment of what his lyrics promise: “You will not be able to stay home brotha. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and drop out. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will be live.” Kendrick Lamar, a prolific hip-hop artist known for his politically conscious music which echoes the spirit of Black pride, is slated to produce the soundtrack.
It did not escape our attention that these depictions of pride and defiance were overwhelmingly male. These photos do not just reference a radical vibe and aesthetic, but also embrace a male-centered vision of power. The singular male image has proven popular, durable and malleable as different generations of men seated themselves in the seat of power and protection while referencing the Panther legacy. Yet the story is more complicated.
Historians Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin have since revealed little-known details about Newton’s photoshoot, noting that “the photographer also shot an unidentified Black Panther woman in a similar scene.” They described her as standing “in striking profile with a hood covering most of her face, a heavy rifle grasped in her right hand.” Although the Newton poster has been understood through the lens of manhood, it is important to note that women played a key role in the BPP at all levels. Similarly, Black women in Wakanda wielded power skillfully.
D-Cyphered, a hip-hop photo exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicted Black women commanding the power of the throne. Photographer Jenny Risher restaged Newton’s photo, offering Black women a powerful opportunity to envision themselves as Panthers. “I was inspired by the summer of 1967, the anniversary of the riots,” Risher says. “I really want to create a picture like this for hip-hop, a revolution tribute.”
The women are draped in various assortments of black leather garments inspired by the style of the movement they’re representing. “I can’t think of anything more powerful than women coming together. The success of the Black Panther Party was largely due to the support of women, but in history [they] are rarely celebrated. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of the women who fought for the efforts of the Black Panther Party and moved a generation’s thinking forward.”
The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)’s exhibit “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50” positioned a bronze replica of the iconic wicker chair so that it would be the first item a visitor saw upon entering. According to curator Rene de Guzman, who also served as OCMA’s director of exhibition strategy and senior curator of art, the chair is a “work of contemporary art.” It was placed at the opening of the exhibit for the public to sit in and project (or transform) themselves into the past, imagining themselves in that iconic moment—sans shotgun, spear, shields and animal skin. In doing this, they made art functional, inviting 83,000 visitors to imagine themselves as part of that history.
Panther women who viewed the exhibit utilized the chair as a site of reminiscence that included their experiences and contributions.
Beyond the guns and shields, being a Panther was not just about a cool pose or frozen moment—it was about the hard work of organizing. History has not remembered that Newton disliked the photo; that he ordered it discontinued but it had already gone viral. The symbolism of the chair is most powerful when used as a mirror to reflect the present, rather than clay to remake the past.
The BPP is renowned for its highly visible men—but stands on the shoulders of its less well known women. The popularity of Black Panther should not be read as pivoting around an iconic male lead, but instead as an affirmation of the powerful women of Wakanda.