Skip to main content

We love Black Panther, and here at Dandelion Chandelier we’re a bit Wakanda-obsessed at the moment. If you’re similarly afflicted, there are many more layers to explore in this cinematic universe. If you loved the movie Black Panther, you should see these pioneering sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films with strong black characters that came before it.

the 1970’s were a golden era for sci-fi films with black characters

We recently read a New York Times story about films made in the 1970’s that presaged the Marvel movie, and touched on many of the same themes decades before. Which led us to numerous articles about the black super-hero films that had been forgotten but that are now getting new attention in the afterglow of Black Panther’s $1 billion+ box office performance.

Curious to know more about the roots of African and African-American sci-fi films?

If you loved the movie Black Panther, you should see these pioneering sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films with strong black characters too.

If you loved the movie Black Panther, you should see these pioneering sci-fi, fantasy and superhero films with strong black characters too.

Here are journalist Glenn Kenny’s suggestions of four movies that were precursors to Black Panther that underscore the mythic and Afro-futuristic themes in the movie, plus four other iconic black science fiction films chosen from a recent 28-film series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music entitled “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film.”

(Side note: it turns out that 1973 was a huge year for films in this genre. Is the ’70’s moment we’ve been having in fashion concurrently with Black Panther an homage, a reflection, or pure coincidence?)

8 pioneering films that share the spirit of the movie Black Panther

Consider these movies must-see if you’re on a journey to plumb the depths of what the film Black Panther has to teach us.

1. Space is the Place.

It turns out that the musician Sun Ra and his band were actually the first black people to land a spaceship in downtown Oakland in the cinema. Filmed in 1973, in the movie they land there from their home planet seeking African-Americans to join them “to see what they can do with planet all their own, without any white people on it.” There’s time travel back to the 1940s, and a card game upon which hangs the future of black humanity. Catch it on YouTube.

2. Touki Bouki.

Also filmed in 1973, this film from Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety is a road movie about a cattle herder aiming to leave Africa for France who enlists an enigmatic woman to join him. With a sound track from Josephine Baker, it’s a trippy fantasy with excellent wardrobe choices. Available to stream on the Criterion Channel of Film-Struck.

3. The Spook Who Sat by the Door.

While not strictly speaking a “super-hero” movie, this film about a black CIA agent who goes rouge and trains young black men to rebel against authority is considered a seminal movie for its portrayal of black agency and empowerment. According to Ashley Clark, the BAMcinématek senior programmer who curated the recent black superhero film festival, this 1973 film “was considered so revolutionary at the time that it was strongly alleged that the FBI suppressed the prints.”

4. Yeelen or Brightness.

This 1987 film was directed by Souleymane Cisse of Mali, and follows a young man on a journey to confront his father, who has become corrupted by power. Based on a 13th-century African myth, in the movie a talking hyena that the hero encounters on his quest is treated as just part of a normal day. Available to stream on Kanopy.

5. The Polymath: Or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany.

This documentary about the black science-fiction writer, the grandson of a slave, demonstrates how his experiences as black gay man informed his writing: he lived his life “as if the world worked differently.” Author of Dhalgren and Babel-17 and winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, in the ’70’s he wrote two issues of Wonder WomanAvailable to stream on Fandor.

6. Blade.

The film’s black star, Wesley Snipes, was also its producer. In this 1998 movie based on a Marvel comic series, the hero is a vampire who hunts other vampires, and his badass wardrobe includes a black leather duster and extremely cool sunglasses that he wears at night. He’s not the only black character: N’Bushe Wright plays the imperiled Dr. Karen Jenson, and Blade’s mother is played by Sanaa Lathan. Guillermo del Toro directed the 2002 sequel, Blade II.

7. Marvel’s Luke Cage.

In this 2016 Netflix series, Mike Colter stars as an ex-con with unbreakable skin who becomes a crime-fighter on the streets of Harlem – he’s literally a bulletproof black man. Alfre Woodard and Rosario Dawson also star. There are references to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and civil war figure Crispus Attucks, as well as cameos from legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan and Wu Tang Clan rapper Method Man. Season 2 launches June 22 on Netflix, with new cast member Annabella Sciorra playing Rosalie Carbone, “a dangerous downtown criminal underworld power player with an eye, and an agenda, toward Harlem.”

8. Sleight.

Bo, played by Jacob Latimore in this 2016 film, has been recently orphaned. His super power? He learns how to control metal when he’s not selling drugs and performing magic tricks on the streets to support his little sister (Storm Reid of Wrinkle in Time fame). Dule Hill plays a menacing drug lord. Fans would love to see a sequel, but there’s no word yet that one is in the works.

extra credit: additional sci-fi and superhero films with black lead characters

If you really want a deep-dive into the genre, there are some less critically well-received or polarizing films that you should see to complete your education. Like 2004’s Catwoman starring Halle Barry. 1993’s The Meteor Man starring Robert Townsend. Blankman, which starred Damon Wayans as Blankman and David Alan Grier as Other Guy. Will Smith’s Hancock. 1997’s Spawn, starring Michael Jai White as the titular superhero (there’s a reboot in the works). And finally, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/Human Torch in 2015’s Fantastic Four.

And if you want to celebrate brief but way-cool appearances by black characters in other super-hero films, check out Samuel L. Jackson as Fury, a recurring presence in the Marvel cinematic universe. Idris Elba and Tessa Thompson in in Thor: Ragnarok. aAnd Don Cheadle as War Machine in Iron Man and Captain America.

pioneering sci-fi films that predate the black panther movie

If nothing else, seeing these pioneering movies will remind you of how impossibly difficult it is to create and market a break-through film starring a black actor or actress. It makes the achievements of the Black Panther team even more astounding and worthy of our gratitude.

What’s next? While we hang out waiting for the Black Panther sequel, we’re psyched to see Raising Dion. It’s a comic book adaptation that follows a black mom who’s raising a son with superpowers. That sounds like it will be extremely cool. And relatable. We were so not the super-hero comic types a few months ago. But somehow, now we’re getting drawn in. Wakanda Forever!

Pamela Thomas-Graham

Pamela Thomas-Graham is the Founder & CEO of Dandelion Chandelier. She serves on the boards of several tech companies, and was previously a senior executive in finance, media and fashion, and a partner at McKinsey & Co.