why black panther is a radical fuck you
Ryan Coogler’s superhero movie initiates a necessary dialogue on the depiction of Africa on screen.
Image courtesy Marvel
Black Panther is an extraordinary movie. With stunning cinematography and a concept which brings the history of colonialism in Africa into sharp focus, paired with an excellent marketing campaign that has brought the hype from black communities across the world, it’s disrupted the narrative of Hollywood filmmaking forever. Black Panther is the first superhero film to feature a predominantly black cast, led by black director Ryan Coogler and an army of black staffers working behind the scenes.
Africa, in too many people’s minds, is still a place synonymous with extreme poverty and emaciated children. The technologically-advanced nation of Wakanda, where the film is set, is a conscious subversion. If the idea is radical now, think about its status in the 1960s, when the comic first hit the shelves. It’s Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), a forgettable token white man character, who hammers home the point before he is injured and taken to to Wakanda to have his life saved by their superior medical skills: “It’s a third-world country,” he says of the nation. “Textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.” Too many people inaccurately believe this is what Africa is like as a continent.
For black people descended from Africans the world-over, the satisfaction of seeing a fictional African country which encapsulates an Afrofuturist dream will be endlessly satisfying, and a “fuck you” to the countless racists who have told us to go back home to our “mud huts”. Lush scenes which scale snow-capped peaks, endless waterfalls and vast, glorious sunsets are interspersed with the audience’s introduction to the vibranium-led technology that has kept Wakanda safe and strong for so many years. Vibranium is the strongest metal on earth, we are told, and Wakanda is sat on a mountain of the stuff. It’s the bullet-proof material which makes up the superhero suits.
"Erik’s storyline is fascinating. Illegitimately born to an African-American mother and Wakandan father -- the uncle of T’Challa -- his role, in the canon of black conflict in America, is akin to that of Malcolm X."
The only thing that dampens the fantasy is reality. By the early twentieth century much of the continent of Africa had been colonised by western nations, excluding Ethiopia and Liberia. Since the 1600s black people had been ripped from the arms of their family as part of the slave trade and, tragically, there was no black nation that ever had the power to still the grinding jaws of the racist, capitalist machine. Within this context, the filmmakers clearly calculated the sympathy the viewer would feel for Black Panther’s villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), who is positioned as a usurper to the Wakandan throne -- the long-lost cousin of Wakanda’s new king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
Erik’s storyline is fascinating. Illegitimately born to an African-American mother and Wakandan father -- the uncle of T’Challa -- his role, in the canon of black conflict in America, is akin to that of Malcolm X. His propensity to violence is moralistic and he is furious at the Wakandans for leaving black Americans to suffer through slavery and its prolonged effects when they could have intervened. Ultimately, having beaten his cousin T’Challa in single combat, he takes it upon himself to be that intervention, to fight fire with fire. His motivation and anger, at having been left to languish in a society which leaves too many black families without their sons, is understandable and in another movie (and perhaps in this one too), he would be looked at as a black activist hero.
“How do you think your ancestors got these,” he asks a museum curator when he steals an African mask from the Museum of Great Britain in London -- part of a strain of biting, politically-relevant post-colonial dialogue that sees white people referred to as “colonisers” in the movie. The only other white person in the film, bar Freeman’s character, is an evil white South African – of course. Erik’s final scene, played out against the light of a dying, ochre sunset, is one of the most heartbreaking -- a stomach-churning reminder that to be African American almost inevitably means that your ancestors survived a harrowing journey on a slave ship. That we are, by the nature of our existence in the western world, survivors pushed to extremes.
"The centring of dark-skinned, natural haired women feels right in an era where colourism often means that to be black and successful equals being light-skinned. Thankfully the filmmakers recognised the contentious debates around black beauty."
T’Challa, the titular Black Panther, played by 41-year-old Chadwick Boseman (I mention his age here because this man is drinking some magic tea, he looks like he’s in his mid-20s), creates less of an impression. “It’s hard for a good man to be king,” he is told by his father during one scene. That is the overall impression he leaves -- good to his core, but perhaps not fierce enough to be a panther. Meanwhile, the women of Wakanda are regal, intelligent badasses, who wear their hair piled up into box-braid buns, natural twist-outs or -- in the case of the Black Panther’s personal bodyguards, the fearsome Dora Milaje -- simply shaved all off.
The centring of dark-skinned, natural haired women feels right in an era where colourism often means that to be black and successful equals being light-skinned. Thankfully the filmmakers recognised the contentious debates around black beauty. Beyond that, T’Challa’s love interest, secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) was a nuanced, feminist portrayal, while the leader of the Dora Milaje, Okoye (Danai Gurira), had two of the best scenes of the film -- when she gets to throw off a straight wig she’s wearing as a disguise (calling it a “disgrace”) while on a mission, and toward the end of the movie, when her love interest is forced to kneel at her feet. T’Challa’s sister, Shuri (played by British actress Letitia Wright), is a sprightly technological genius who is pushing the capability of vibranium to its limits.
As in real life, where black women are superheroes without capes (or costumes), the women of Black Panther are the backbone of the community they inhabit -- powerful and vulnerable.
In an era of ‘firsts’, a discussion which has been flaring up amongst my black creative friends is whether or not this is the time for critical dissemination of the work that is being made by our contemporaries. I believe we can and should demand more. Black Panther felt like the perfect superhero movie for superhero fans -- brash, loud and bold, with beautiful fight scenes embedded into one of the towering waterfalls, water sloshing around the fighters’ feet.
But, for me, some of the characters and narratives felt two-dimensional. It felt particularly unfortunate that the film explicitly catered for an American audience which revels in an irritating, and sometimes patronising, form of pan-Africanism. Then there was the clumsy reference to Boko Haram in one of the first scenes (a cause picked up by Michelle Obama, of course) which saw Nakia liberating black Muslim women in head coverings. That no African-born actors bar Lupita made it onto the main cast was disappointing, too.
This film will not help with the Western tendency to homogenise Africa. Tasteful though it is, the fictional creation of Wakanda involved a mixing of cultures and styles from different countries: an American interpretation of what an African country could be. It will probably be celebrated by Africans en masse thanks to the massive sway African American culture has over black culture worldwide (again, hi colonialism!). But, this argument is complex. Going back to the words of Erik Killmonger, perhaps it’s okay for African Americans to have a unique, mixed-up interpretation of Africa as long as it’s respectful, considering they will never know their true roots.
"This film will not help with the Western tendency to homogenise Africa. Tasteful though it is, the fictional creation of Wakanda involved a mixing of cultures and styles from different countries: an American interpretation of what an African country could be."
In the run up to its release, Black Panther the movie has often felt almost secondary to Black Panther the movement -- Disney, a corporation that we must not forget has faced accusations of racism throughout its history -- has very successfully harnessed grassroots support for the film; the #BlackPantherChallenge, for instance, has raised over $300,000 (£232,000) to send black children to see the film in cinemas. We all know the power of representation, and trust me when I say that this film will change a few young black children’s lives.
But because of its history, and its status as a white-owned conglomerate, a petition that calls for Disney to invest 25 percent of its profits into black communities seems apt. “As black communities across the United States continue to grapple with issues such as gentrification, police brutality, and substandard living conditions we cannot continue to recklessly support these conglomerates, allowing them to profit off of us without demanding something more than just their products in return,” the petition reads.
It’s unlikely the studios will heed, but in my view, it’s brilliant that we’re having these conversations at all -- and we couldn’t have them without the existence of Black Panther.
Marvel Studios’ Black Panther will be released in UK cinemas on 13 February, 2018