Although the film Black Panther has been hailed as overturning the usual negative perception of Africa, is it not in the same tradition as ‘the single African story’ of black people fighting senseless wars? By Baffour Ankomah
Is it only me who is asking what all the fuss is about with Black Panther, the movie? In my 38 years in journalism I don’t remember any movie receiving such high accolades in Global Africa as this Marvel comic film set in the fictionalised African country of Wakanda. I have watched it twice, the latest time being in early June, and each time I left with serious questions ringing in my old head. Maybe I am not seeing right or thinking correctly. So could somebody out there help me, please?
Many reasons have been given as to why Black Panther is so great. So let’s go over some of them before I come to my main point. According to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the retired American basketball legend, “Black Panther is not just another comic-book film but a cultural spearhead disguised as a thrilling action adventure. You may go for the hard-core action and hard-muscled bodies, but, if you’re white, you’ll leave with an anti-‘shi**ole’ appreciation for Africa and African-American cultural origins. If you’re black, you’ll leave with a straighter walk, a gratitude for your African heritage and a superhero whom black children can relate to.”
Now, mark the words: “If you’re black, you’ll leave with a straighter walk, a gratitude for your African heritage…”
Ryan Coogler, the director of the film, says: “The concept of an African story, with actors of African descent at the forefront, combined with the scale of modern franchise filmmaking, is something that hasn’t really been seen before. You feel like you’re getting the opportunity of seeing something fresh, being a part of something new, which I think all audiences want to experience, regardless of whether they are of African descent or not.”
Again, mark the words: “You feel like you’re getting the opportunity of seeing something fresh, being a part of something new …”
Coogler is said to have visited Africa in preparation for the film, which trip enlightened him in a way that he hopes shows up in
the movie. “If this film can give people who are of African descent a feeling of pride, even in the theatre, that’s a bonus I wouldn’t even be able to comprehend as an artist,” he says.
Hannah Beachler, the production designer of the film, adds: “We wanted to honour and have reverence for the continent and bring it to the screen in a way that you haven’t seen before, as being a prosperous place.”
Fiction of Africa
Writing about the film in April, New African reminded all and sundry that
“the fiction of Africa and as a corollary, that of the black person, is far stronger than the reality”, and explained that “for centuries, Africa has been at the receiving end of degrading perception; Black Panther has reversed this and injected a new pride in being African.”
Sadly, I beg to differ on the last point because I have a beef with certain aspects of the plot of the movie. As New African noted in April on the plot: “The scene is thus set for an epic struggle between the power of good represented by T’Challa, who wants to use advanced technology to bring peace, and Killmonger who wants a war to end all wars. These are the bare-bones of the story…”
This is where the problem lies. Having watched Black Panther twice, “the bare-bones of the story”, to me, fit embarrassingly into what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, calls “the single story of Africa” – which she defines as: “If all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and Aids, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
Thank God, there is no “kind, white foreigner” in Black Panther, rather there is Ulysses Klaue, “a ruthless white villain” whose bloody, contorted face brings shame to villains. But after all the advanced technology brought by vibranium, an alien metal acquired from a fallen meteor, Black Panther ends up portraying the people of Wakanda in the same mould of “the single story of Africa” – as a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars!
For centuries and centuries, Europe was one such place of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars”, which gave rise to Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, the Roman writer, telling Europeans that “in times of peace, prepare for war”. But when advanced technology took hold of Europe and the atomic bomb became the odium of that technology in 1945, the incomprehensible people (of Europe), who had been fighting senseless wars since Adam, changed tack and used their advanced technology for the good of not only themselves but humankind.
Now, let’s go back to Black Panther. Wakanda had advanced technology long before T’Challa’s father, the King, was assassinated. The King’s brother (sent to New York) wanted to use the advanced technology to help black people everywhere to free themselves from oppression. This is how Ulysses Klaue, the ruthless white villain, came in. The King’s brother solicits the help of Klaue to steal Wakanda’s vibranium for the cause of freeing black people from oppression. The King, while a young man, ends up killing his brother for betraying Wakanda. The dead man’s son, sired with an American woman, grows up as Killmonger, who wants to continue his father’s abortive plan by seeking to start a war to “free all the oppressed people and kill the oppressors”.
Now what is my point? Wakanda already had superior advanced technology which should have made Wakandans (like the Europeans after 1945) a comprehensible people who don’t fight senseless wars but, instead, use their high technology and wealth for the good of themselves and humankind. But Wakanda refused to do so, even after T’Challa became king and his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, urged him to use Wakanda’s technology and wealth to help other nations by giving them foreign aid, and also help refugees.
Rather, we see Wakanda degenerate into civil war as Killmonger arrives to wrestle power from T’Challa, and when a defeated T’Challa returns to reclaim his kingdom, the civil war engulfs everybody – brother killing brother and sister killing sister. Of all the fighting in the film, only one battle (the one with the backdrop of Busan in South Korea) is not a black-on-black fight. The rest involve Wakandans fighting Wakandans – in senseless wars! How does that compare with the African reality?
From the Nigerian civil war (1967-70), and all the way through the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and even right now, as I write, senseless wars have been fought and are being fought by Africans against Africans. So where is the “something fresh” that Black Panther brings to the screen? NA