Black Panther – one of 2018’s most significant films
The Marvel Blockbuster movie Black Panther opened in cinemas worldwide and has been enthusiastically received. It is more than just an action packed, visual masterpiece about a superhero. Its recognition of African American talent, portrayal of African excellence, and profound reference to important events and circumstances that have shaped the African continent easily make it one of the most significant movies of the year.
The movie is based on the beautiful, verdant fictional African nation of Wakanda, where the protagonist and his people hail from. Wakanda, free from the negative consequences of colonial rule has bountiful resources, including the all-powerful vibranium which is used to build indestructible weapons, amongst other things. Wakandans maintain their traditions yet are technological innovative in ways that ensure the prosperity and survival of the people. This “Afrofuturistic” portrayal constitutes the first point of interest as it rebuts the all too common Hollywood portrayal of African nations as backward, poor and mismanaged.
Black Panther’s portrayal of women as strong, empowered leaders who are revered and respected by their community, is the next point of interest. T’Challa (King of Wakanda and Black Panther) ‘s army is an all-female, well trained legion of warriors known as the Dora Milaje. They are led by General Okoye who is played by Zimbabwean American actress Danai Gurira. Whilst this does remind viewers of the Colonel Gaddafi’s all female, elite cadre of personal bodyguards who were handpicked, extensively trained in the use of firearms, and martial arts, it has also been linked to the Ahosi of Dahomey.
The Ahosi Dahomey, also known as the N’Nonmiton, were 17th century fearless, female warriors appointed by King Wegbaja of Dahomey, (present day Benin) to protect him.
Other strong female leads include, Wakandan spy Nakia played by Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o, Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) and technology genius, Shuri played by Letitia Wright.
The movie also touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, as the lead nemesis, Erik Killmonger, who descends from Wakanda royalty, seeks to use the resources and advanced technology of Wakanda to uplift marginalised black people in the rest of the world, particularly in his place of birth – the United States of America.
An impassioned speech about the discrimination, marginalisation, ill treatment and prejudice endured by many African Americans is given by the Killmonger, ultimately making some audience members sympathetic to his cause. However, to do this, Killmonger resolves that he must defeat T’Challa in tribal combat, take the throne of Wakanda and control its resources and technology. Killmonger succeeds and begins his aggressive reign. He violates their traditions, instills fear and behaves like a dictator.
His time on the throne is reminiscent of the history of Liberia where African Americans, known as Americo-Liberians, returned to Liberia in 1847 and ruled and oppressed the local Liberians until 1980. Like the Liberians, the Wakandans, and T’Challa were able to rid themselves of their oppressor.
Drawing on several African cultures, the movie reflects on the importance of ancestry and legacy as both T’Challa and Killmonger consult with their ancestors upon ascension to the throne. Coupled with that is the rich array of African attire- the vivid colours and different tribal symbols simultaneously reflect the continents similarity and diversity, reminding audiences of its authenticity and beauty.
Black Panther is the first Marvel movie to have a predominantly black cast, with a number of African actors, and a black director, American Ryan Coogler. It showcases black talent and serves as an inspiration to young black children who have only ever known white super heroes.
One of the few white characters is an Afrikaans arms dealer known as Ulysses Klau. Aware of its use in the construction of powerful weapons, Klau steals a sample of Wakanda’s precious vibranium and seeks to sell it to the highest bidder. Could this be a subtle reference to the 2017 arrest of Dutch arms dealer Guus Kouwenhoven in Cape Town?
In one of the epic battle scenes General Okoye is taking fire whilst in a bullet proof car and she says “guns- so primitive”. This one line evokes references to the role guns played in the colonisation of Africa.
In Southern Africa in particular, the arrival of European settlers with their guns changed the face of the continent. It not only assisted the settlers to overpower locals but it also constituted a way to entrench the imbalance to power. For example, during the 17th century the Dutch East India Company encouraged settlers to buy guns and those who crossed deeper into the African interior were forbidden to sell them to the local population. Though this was rule was not always obeyed, it gave the settlers an advantage.
In African countries affected by the Transatlantic Slave Trade, guns were used to intimidate local populations but also as a trade tool in exchange for slaves. White slave traders would pit tribe against tribe by telling chiefs that their tribal enemies have purchased guns to fight for local dominion and that they should also buy guns to defend themselves. This potential threat, desire to have superior fire power, and in many cases the greed of chiefs, gravely influenced the slave trade.
General Okoye’s reference to the primitive nature of guns juxtaposed with the superior nature of Wakanda’s weapons is yet another important reference to the fact that Wakanda was never colonised and leads the viewer down the illusory path of an Africa free from colonisation.
General Okoye also has another important line – on their mission to South Korea, Nakia, T’Challa and Okoye are dressed in an attempt to blend in with the clientele at an exclusive upmarket casino. Okoye who sports a clean shaven, attractive bald head as is traditional with the Dora, is wearing a wig for this scene. She comments on how she cannot wait to remove the “ridiculous” wig from her head. Whilst this is simply amusing it immediately reminds every black woman that her hairstyle, has become a political statement which triggers judgement or approval from various corners of society.
The multi-layered tapestry and rich social-political commentary exhibited in the movie is remarkable but so is the movie’s financial success. Forbes reported that the movie grossed $242 million in the US in its first four days, constituting the second-highest opening and “the biggest ever debut for a black director.” The movie has also done well outside of the US, making $427 million in the same period, according to Vanity Fair,and effectively debunking the prejudicial Hollywood myth that black casts do not perform as well internationally.
Whilst most will agree that the “African” accents could have done with more work, generally film goers are satisfied, inspired and enthralled. A seemingly simple story about a superhero has broken records, potentially lifted the glass ceiling hovering over the heads of black actors and directors and put Africa- its infinite beauty and history- in the spotlight. What better time than now.
*A version of this article first appeared in the Star Newspaper on 1 March 2018