Zahida Sherman is the director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Oberlin College. She was formerly the assistant director of black student success at University of the Pacific. Find her writings on race, gender, and adulthood in Bustle and Blavity.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Zahida Sherman about the movie that changed her life, Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. But if not, no worries. We’re gonna give you all the details you need to follow along.
But before we get started, a special shout-out to our Minneapolis friends. We’re doing a live recording of This Movie Changed Me with artist, activist, and Minneapolis city council member, Andrea Jenkins. We’ll be at the Parkway Theater on Sunday, September 29th talking about Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X. You can get your tickets at theparkwaytheater.com, and use the promo code “MovieFriends” to get 20% off. We’re also gonna give away two free tickets to the event. So to enter, subscribe to our newsletter at onbeing.org/tmcmletter, and send us an email at email@example.com with the subject line “TMCM Tickets.”
[music: “Wakanda” by Ludwig Göransson]
I love Marvel superhero movies but I don’t expect a lot from them — usually. But when I first heard that Ryan Coogler was going to be directing Black Panther, I was so excited for the layers that were going to be featured in this film. I knew that he would add a depth to the character of Black Panther and to the storyline that just wouldn’t be found otherwise in a Marvel superhero movie. Ryan Coogler understands that a character needs to have more than just badass superhero moves. He understands that what we relate to as people is the inner depth and layers of our humanity. There is no such thing as just good and evil. There’s a lot of gray to life, and those things come up in the movies that Ryan Coogler directs.
[music: “Ancestral Plane” by Ludwig Göransson]
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Opps” by Vince Staples & Yugen Blakrok]
This gray area is at the center of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. The movie centers around King T’Challa, the king of Wakanda. Wakanda’s an African country unlike any other. It’s rich in a metal called vibranium, and this metal has powered their advanced technology. It’s also allowed them to hide from the rest of the world. T’Challa has been made the king recently after his father was assassinated. And the movie could’ve gone the route of the superhero villain, the superhero hero. But instead it goes even deeper in the character of Killmonger, someone who has Wakandan blood running through his veins but who also has Oakland blood in his veins and has a lot of complicated feelings about Wakanda and T’Challa.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Killmonger’s Challenge” by Ludwig Göransson]
Killmonger holds T’Challa and all the people of Wakanda accountable for all the things they’re not doing for black Americans in the United States. He sees the technology that Wakanda has. The superpowers that they literally have within their people, and he sees them not sharing them. He sees them not helping out all of the other black people in the United States and throughout the world.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
I’ve talked a lot about Killmonger and T’Challa. These two central male characters in Black Panther. But I have to mention all of the women who lead these two men. They would truly be nothing without the characters of Shuri, the chief scientist and T’Challa’s younger sister, Nakiya, and General Okoye. These women are strong and brave and vulnerable in the most powerful ways and ultimately are the reasons why Wakanda is what she is.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Redemption Interlude” by Zacari & Babes Wodumo]
The gray areas and the layers of complexity to black identity are things that really spoke to Zahida Sherman when she saw Black Panther. Zahida works with college students, and she took all of her students to go see Black Panther and that experience was one that transformed her view of what black identity could be. When she was in the theater watching Black Panther with them, she genuinely felt Wakanda welcoming them with open arms.
Ms. Percy: I am so excited to talk to you. I just love your writing; I love the Bustle piece where you talked about the experience of going with your students to see Black Panther. It’s so beautiful, I mean, so lovely, and really painted this picture. It made me feel like I was there with you, which I just so appreciate.
Zahida Sherman: Oh, cool. Thank you.
Ms. Percy: So I’d love to take you back in time for a minute, to the first time you saw Black Panther. And I’d love to ask you to close your eyes and — I’m gonna keep time here — for ten seconds, think about that first time that you saw Black Panther. And think about who you were with and where you were and how it made you feel. And then when the ten seconds are up, I’ll just chime back in.
Ms. Sherman: Sure.
Ms. Percy: So what memories came up for you just then?
Ms. Sherman: So the things that popped into my mind were: meeting up with the students and meeting up with my friends, my colleagues, my bosses; getting on a public bus in Stockton, leaving the university, going downtown to watch this movie; walking from the bus stop to the theater; seeing more students — and just the energy. The energy was so electric. The energy was so amplified. And just smiling. Smiling and laughing the entire time and looking at each other’s outfits and asking each other to strut and twirl [laughs] and take pictures and “show us your jewelry” — all of these things.
So, let’s have fun with this; let’s embrace it; let’s be ourselves and see what happens. And from top to bottom, that whole day, it was just this crescendo of emotions and pride and just joy. It was just Black joy all day, all day long.
[music: “Bèrèbèrè (feat. Ali Farka Touré)” by Idrissa Soumaoro]
[excerpt: Black Panther]
Ms. Percy: What was the experience, actually being in the theater, watching it after all that anticipation?
Ms. Sherman: You know, if I tell somebody, “You gotta come through, looking like Black excellence,” I’m gonna take it super-serious. [laughs] So I had been planning my outfit for some time. My deceased grandmother, she was super-into fur coats. So I’m rocking this floor-length mink coat, very reminiscent of Coming to America. I’ve got a huge necklace on, and I got my ‘fro picked out. And so the students see me come in, and they’re cheering me on and really amping me up. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Oh, I love that.
Ms. Sherman: So there was that, which was hilarious. But then, just sitting in the theater seat and turning around, turning left and right — panning all the way around and realizing, that theater had to be 99 percent black viewers …
Ms. Percy: Which is amazing.
Ms. Sherman: … which doesn’t happen a whole lot, right? [laughs] So, that in itself was incredible because, I think, when you’re a person of color, just in general, and when you’re black, specifically, what happens is, you’re very conscious of the white gaze on you. You’re very conscious of how white folks are perceiving you and what they’re gonna do with that perception, whether it’s they’re going to weaponize it or they’re going to — you know, I don’t know; there’s a whole myriad of possibilities, right?
But the feeling of that absence was complete freedom, I would say, just to be yourself. And whatever reaction you had — if you laughed too loud, it’s cool; you know why? Because there’s a theater full of black folks who would expect nothing less.
Ms. Percy: Exactly, and who are also laughing just as loud.
Ms. Sherman: Yeah! Or if you’re talking back at the screen and doing our whole call-and-response, things like — that’s embraced. Do it. Have fun. Be yourself, and be authentic. So that was one of the first things that I felt, and of course, seeing students of mine who are either from Oakland themselves, or their family’s from there, or just have some kind of very deep personal and historical ties to that area —
Ms. Percy: Because the movie, you know, part of it is set in Oakland, right?
Ms. Sherman: Exactly!
Ms. Percy: So you’re seeing this in a very specific way.
Ms. Sherman: They’re seeing experiences that they can relate to. They’re seeing neighborhoods they can relate to. They’re hearing people talk like them. They’re seeing swag that looks like theirs. It was everything.
Ms. Percy: One of the things that you pointed out in your piece for Bustle was that, actually, Oakland is the home of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which they don’t talk about explicitly in the movie, but it kind of permeates it, that feeling of the Black Panther movement. And that was fascinating for me to learn, and clearly, I know that the director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler, is from Oakland, but bringing that in feels so important to the context of the movie.
Ms. Sherman: Absolutely, because I think one of the best and the most interesting storylines of the Black Panther, the movie, was this idea of freedom, this idea of liberation, and what does that mean, and what can it look like. What can it look like on a global scale; what can it look like between Africans and diasporans — just so many, so many layers. And when you think about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland trying to liberate their communities, it was necessary, I think, to make that connection, whether subtle or overt. I’m really glad Coogler did it.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Killmonger” by Ludwig Göransson]
Ms. Percy: And one of the things you talk about is what you wanted for your students that night. You write about it so beautifully; you say, “I wanted my students to feel the elation of Black possibility and freedom. I wanted my students to experience the sheer joy of seeing a movie for us and by us, all about what happens when Black life thrives without exploitation and colonization. I wanted my students to see what happens when Black thought, innovation, and beauty are the standards.” That’s so beautiful.
Ms. Sherman: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. I meant that. And as a side note, this is probably the only article I’ve written, or the only piece I’ve ever written this emotionally — it was tough. I was crying, writing some parts of that, because the things that my students shared with me about their lives and about being black and the struggle of expressing themselves and being themselves comfortably, and all of the shots that come out at them on a macro and micro level, it’s crazy. It’s heartbreaking. It breaks people down. So, to have that experience with them, just to see what it looks like when you’re free — when you’re carefree in your blackness, or just when you’re yourself in your blackness — that was really important to me, because those students in particular — and that’s not uncommon for a lot of schools in California — they’re like super-minorities, three percent of a whole student body population. It’s crazy. So I think my students, they have that desire, and they want to learn more, and they want to grow into whoever they’re going to become as black people, but there are so many barriers that prevent them from being able to do that in their lives. So it was pretty tough, but I just wanted them to, for one night, [laughs] for 2 hours, 14 minutes, enjoy the film and whatever it does for you — whatever it does for you spiritually; whatever it does for you intellectually; whatever it does for you creatively, let that seed be nurtured into whatever it can become. That was really important to me.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “A New Day” by Ludwig Göransson]
Ms. Percy: Black Panther has impacted so many people around the world, and it truly changed what a superhero movie could be. So if you haven’t seen it, we want to give you the gift of watching it. Subscribe to our newsletter at onbeing.org/tmcmletter, and you’ll be entered to win your very own copy of Black Panther. We’ll also send you behind-the-scenes-extras, essays, and so much more. Visit onbeing.org/tmcmletter and subscribe today.
[music: “Redemption” by Zacari & Babes Wodumo]
Ms. Percy: So we’ve talked a little bit about what you felt, going to see this movie as the event that it was and with your students and with your community. What surprised you, as you were watching the movie? What surprised you that you took away from it that you didn’t really expect?
Ms. Sherman: Ooh. The surprises — oh, gosh. I expected, on some kind of general level, everyone was gonna look amazing, and that didn’t disappoint. Let’s be clear. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: And they did. Oh, my God, yeah. I mean, the women? Ugh.
Ms. Sherman: The women — the men — everybody’s on point, right?
Ms. Percy: Everyone looked beautiful, everyone.
Ms. Sherman: So I expected that. I expected it to be entertaining. I don’t think I expected — I don’t think I expected it to do anything for me, like, spiritually. I don’t think I expected it to give me the sense of affirmation that it did, in being Black and in terms of who am I; where do I belong; where is home? I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see that coming. So that happened. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: There’s so much depth to it! And that’s the thing; even watching it last night, again, I was — I’m embarrassed to say that the line during Michael B. Jordan, his death scene, that line that he delivered — I mean, obviously, I was present; I saw this in the theater; I heard it before. But hearing it last night, it just killed me. It killed me when he says, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Oh, my God. The fact that that made it into this movie, a Marvel movie…
Ms. Sherman: Exactly. And that’s how [laughs] — that’s how you know, this was not just any kind of Marvel movie. There were a lot of things like that throughout the film, and — just to be clear, I’ve seen this movie — I watched it again last night — I’ve seen this movie probably around 15 times at this point.
Ms. Percy: That’s awesome. Yay.
Ms. Sherman: But each time, there’s a new “oh, my God, that line.” The lines will hit you a different way, or there’s some kind of subtlety that I didn’t catch before.
Ms. Percy: What stood out to you yesterday, watching it?
Ms. Sherman: Things that stood out to me last night, with the most recent viewing, the themes of family. That was really powerful. That was something that I wasn’t prepared for. So the relationships between siblings and this — I’m trying to be on my best behavior and not curse, but kind of talking trash about —
Ms. Percy: You can. You can.
Ms. Sherman: [laughs] You’re gonna talk shit about each other, but you have each other’s back. And the way they fought for each other was real — was real, whether you’re fighting to save a nation, which is very extreme, or you’re fighting for your family, or you’re fighting for your community, or you’re fighting for — whatever it is you’re fighting for. Siblings do that. And the way they joked with each other, I thought, was —
Ms. Percy: This is Shuri and T’Challa.
Ms. Sherman: Shuri and T’Challa, yeah. Even him striking the Black Panther suit and getting knocked out, and she wants to put it on social media, get the video. You know? Things like that, it was just very real.
Ms. Percy: She always keeps him humble.
Ms. Sherman: Always. Always. That’s what family does.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Wololo (feat. Mampintsha)” by Babes Wodumo]
Ms. Percy: I love that you brought up Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, played by Letitia Wright. She’s my favorite character in the movie. I love her confidence and her intelligence and the technology that she creates. I was wondering if you connected with her, because I think I read an interview with you, that you wanted to be an astronaut when you were a kid. I was like, you could’ve been the Shuri of this movie! [laughs]
Ms. Sherman: Oh, no. You know, there were some other things in the cards for me. But I just love — I love Shuri. I love that they showed this young girl — because I think she’s like 16, in the movie, or something outrageous.
Ms. Percy: I couldn’t tell. I was like, I have no idea how old she is, but she is — yeah, remarkable.
Ms. Sherman: She’s this teenager who’s leading the nation in tech. She’s developing everything. I love that. I love that because we don’t see that enough. I did not personally identify with Shuri a whole lot, as the aspiring astronaut from a million years ago. But I appreciated it because of the female black scientists in my life. I have a sister who is a podiatrist and who excelled in science. So that’s dope, to me, to see that on the silver screen.
[excerpt: Black Panther]
Ms. Sherman: What I think was cool is — not just in Wakanda, but actually, in real life — we do everything. And it was just a moment of pride. And even just thinking, too, about the family relationships and the relationships or portrayals of women, of black women, it was amazing to see the theme of sisterhood throughout the movie, and what does that look like. So you have Shuri; you have Nakia; you have Okoye; all have very different roles, but all very invested in each other, all very invested in their community, all very devoted to Wakanda and serving their nation and serving it in the way that they think is best, even though they’re not always on the same page. I loved it. They were powerful; they were beautiful; they were sexy; they were smart; they were innovators — they held it down.
Ms. Percy: And I would say, they stole the show away from T’Challa, in my opinion.
Ms. Sherman: Oh, for sure. For sure.
Ms. Percy: I’m like, the women really are the stars of this movie.
Ms. Sherman: And that’s, I think — so — [laughs] I didn’t think of it that way, but that was one of the surprises of Black Panther: Being so excited about everyone except the actual Black Panther. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Isn’t that crazy? So true.
Ms. Sherman: [laughs] I don’t know. I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see that coming at all. And I think, too, with the black women, to be portrayed in a way that intentionally showcased our intelligence, our skin tone — our dark skin, to be specific — our devotion, our strength, in a way that wasn’t — we weren’t the butt of the jokes. We weren’t the women that get picked last. We weren’t bitter; we weren’t angry; we weren’t — all of the things that we are in stereotypical —
Ms. Percy: They also aren’t waiting for the men to take action.
Ms. Sherman: At all.
Ms. Percy: It was so inspiring.
Ms. Sherman: And checked — and checked the men, too — [laughs] for the good of the country, so …
Ms. Percy: I love the scene where General Okoye, when she confronts her lover …
Ms. Sherman: W’Kabi, yeah.
Ms. Percy: And he says, would you — I can’t remember how he phrases it, but like, “My love, would you kill me?”
Ms. Sherman: “Would you kill me?”
Ms. Percy: And she’s like, “For Wakanda?” [laughs] “Yes.”
Ms. Sherman: Without hesitation. I said, yes; put him in check, because he was on one, anyway.
Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah. I was like, you deserve to die. [laughs]
Ms. Sherman: Yeah, he — I don’t know what he was doing.
Ms. Percy: But she was benevolent in that moment, and he saw — what I love is, then, he bows down and puts down his sword. He recognizes her power and that he is not gonna be able to compete with that.
Ms. Sherman: He did. And even for them to relate to each other — prior to that, there’s a scene where they use their kimoyo beads to pop up this image, and it’s Okoye talking to W’Kabi and talking to T’Challa as they’re feeding this huge rhinoceros. And she refers to T’Challa as her king, and she refers to W’Kabi as “my love.” And just to see the love and the tenderness between them, a black man and a black woman, dark-skinned, melanin popping, they love each other and they adore each other. And they respect each other. That was really cool and really affirming.
Ms. Percy: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about this movie that we haven’t talked about? Anything that you feel is important to note?
Ms. Sherman: Yeah. I think for me, why I love this and why this is a movie that, I think, I’ll always think about, I’ll always remember, I’ll always think about fondly is, it gives us permission — or it allows us, I think, as Black people, to be OK with being ourselves, in a way I haven’t seen another film really do, or a film like that, of that magnitude, a Hollywood kind of film, do. These ideas of am I enough; who am I; where do I belong; where can I belong — you see this film, and you think about or learn about all of the things that various black people have done all over the world — you can’t help but feel proud of yourself and proud of what we’ve been through and proud of where we might go. Anything is possible.
And that’s, for me, the biggest takeaway from the film and why I can watch it probably 20 more times and still be smiling. Anything is possible. Anything is possible, because we’ve done so much. We’ve done so much. So it’s OK to stand tall in who you are and be proud of who you are. Even if it’s a hard neighborhood, even if it’s a hard history, there’s still a lot to pull from to get strength.
[music: “Sleep Walkin” by Mozzy]
[excerpt: Black Panther]
[music: “Spaceship Bugatti” by Ludwig Göransson]
Ms. Percy: Zahida Sherman is a Seattleite and the Director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Oberlin College. When she took her students to see Black Panther, she was the assistant director of black student success at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. You can find her writings on race, gender, and adulthood in Bustle and Blavity.
[music: “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar]
Black Panther was produced by Marvel Studios and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. Ludwig Göransson scored the movie, and its soundtrack comes from Top Dog Entertainment, Aftermath, and Interscope Records. It is so good and definitely worth listening to on repeat.
Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about one of my all-time favorite movies, Contact. You’ve got a week to watch it before our next conversation, and fair warning: this one will make you cry.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy, and Wakanda forever.