Marvel’s Black Panther Once Fought His Own Battle with U.S. Immigration

As the recently released superhero film, Black Panther, continues to rake in record-breaking profits at the box office, it has become much more than a movie. The film is being celebrated as a revolutionary tour de force that redefines our perception of what superheroes look like, and where they come from. Set in the Marvel universe, Black Panther focuses on King T’Challa, who hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. When rival factions from within his own country threaten to usurp his power, he becomes the titular superhero in order to defend his throne, and the future of Wakanda.

Black Panther has received praise for its dazzling special effects, fast-paced action, and engaging plot, but part of what has turned it into a worldwide phenomenon is that it delivers something audiences never have seen before: a blockbuster superhero move featuring an African protagonist, starring a majority black cast, and helmed by a black writer and director. And recently, one of the film’s stars wrote an essay for the Washington Post detailing another striking aspect of the film that has been widely overlooked – King T’Challa / Black Panther is (or, at least, was) an undocumented immigrant.

In The World’s Most Popular Superhero is an Undocumented Immigrant, Bambadjan Bamba, who plays a militant leader in Black Panther, traces the parallels between his own experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the United States and that of the Black Panther character, who began appearing in Marvel comic books in the late 1960’s. Bamba’s family arrived in the U.S. from his native country of Cote d’Ivoire on visitor visas when his ten years old, desperately trying to escape political upheaval and persecution. His parents applied for political asylum, but it was never granted. Bamba then became a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (commonly known as ‘dreamers), which provides certain temporary immigration protections to qualifying undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. He is now an ambassador for Define American, a nonprofit organization that challenges false, fear-based perceptions of immigrants in the media. [See The World’s Most Popular Superhero Is An Undocumented Immigrant, by Bambadjan Bamba, The Washington Post, 23.Feb.2018.]

When Bamba began reading the “Black Panther” comics in preparation for his role in the film, he was surprised to learn that in the 2011 series “Black Panther: The Man Without Fear,” King T’Challa / Black Panther obtains forged immigration papers so he can enter America from Wakanda and provide protection for the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Black Panther is forced to face off with an immigrant-bashing supervillain, named Hate Monger, who enlists U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents to pursue T’Challa, based on the hero’s unlawful immigration status.

In his essay, Babma details the intense personal connection he felt with the fictional Black Panther as he recalled his own youth trying to navigate life in the U.S. as an undocumented black immigrant, revealing that “this story resonated with me because, while I was trying to maneuver through life without legal status, I was also dealing with the realities of being black in America. To be black without papers meant that I was walking on an additional layer of eggshells, never wanting to appear too ‘aggressive’ or ‘suspicious’ for fear of giving law enforcement a reason to criminalize me and triggering deportation proceedings.”

Black Panther is a film that has captured the attention of audiences around the world, not only because it’s a compelling story, but because it represents thousands of Americans who, until now, were rarely acknowledged by Hollywood. Hopefully, the success of Black Panther will usher in more films that explore the diverse array of immigrant experiences that make our nation so unique.


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