Very few films over the past three or four decades have generated so much discussion at so many levels in so many places and among so many different people as the Hollywood film Black Panther, which was released in February this year. Why has there been so much fuss about a fantasy action film and why is this film being considered a major force in changing cultural attitudes and perceptions? New African editor Anver Versi discusses.
On the face of it, Black Panther should have raised no more eyebrows than any one of the half-dozen or so superhero films from the Marvel stables in Hollywood. Superheroes: typically beings endowed with superhuman capabilities, they have been around for at least half a century, existing in widely read comic books, television serials and films – mainly in the US and other Western nations, but also commanding a formidable fan base around the world.
The films are entertaining, action-packed, full of astonishing special effects and it does not require much intellectual effort to enjoy them. They are popular and designed for the mass market. They come and go and never cause a ripple on the serious discussion front.
Then along comes Black Panther, from the same stable and ostensibly following the same formula and people cannot stop talking about it. It has generated a torrent of comment and analysis from philosophers, academics, authors, journalists, reviewers, thinkers, artists, activists, politicians and, down the scale, the humble ‘burger-flipper’ as they say in the US.
What is it about Black Panther that has unleashed such a flood of discussion? Even Time magazine, for the first time in its long history, has featured a superhero, the Black Panther on its cover. Widely read and influential magazines such as Esquire and Q and global newspapers such as the New York Times and the UK’s Guardian have devoted acres of space to often learned articles on Black Panther.
The film’s release in most of Africa is still delayed but there is no doubt that both intellectuals and lay persons will have their say when it is finally shown on the big screen or via pirated DVDs. It has been doing roaring business in China and Asia and breaking box-office records in the US and other Western countries.
What is it about Black Panther that seems to appeal equally to intellectuals and ordinary film buffs? Why is it being touted as a major force in changing perceptions about black people and even Africa where it is set? Why are people of colour everywhere lining up for repeat viewings and walking out of the cinemas with their heads held high and their hearts much lighter than before they went in?
To put the impact of Black Panther in context, it is important to understand the environment from which it hails and the power of cinema and fiction to shape and mould perceptions that last for generations.
Over the years, wide-eyed schoolboys and even adults with active imaginations have avidly followed the incredible adventures of characters like Superman, Batman, Spiderman and more recently, Captain America, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman and a host of others, all gifted with supernatural powers, which they use largely to thwart evil-doers and protect mankind (read, American citizens).
There was an active trade of comics among my schoolmates in Kenya and for many of us, comics fired our imaginations, opened up new worlds of possibility and led to a lifelong love of reading and fiction.
We even had African versions from South Africa. These had photo storylines instead of drawings and included such hugely popular characters as Lance Spearman, who was a detective and Boom, a black, Tarzan-like character. Sadly, with the rise of television, these titles died away – but Marvel comics have continued to hold their sway, although TV and films now seem to have taken over the mass market.
Throughout my travels in Africa, I’ve been amazed at how easy it is to find cut-price DVDs of these marvellous creatures doing fantastic, gravity and logic- defying feats. In West Africa in particular, these DVDs are very popular and are usually brought out at group viewings, with the audience loudly joining in the fun and games on the screen.
It is hardly surprising that superheroes command such large and often dedicated fan bases across the globe. Who does not secretly wish to be as strong as the Man of Steel (Superman) or fly through the air ‘faster than a bullet’, or defeat a whole army of thugs singlehanded and be impervious to bullets and knives – and humbly acknowledge the adoration and gratitude of thousands?
That most of these superheroes lead double lives – appearing as ordinary, even meek people in ‘normal life’ before transforming into their super states, serves to intensifies the fantasy, the belief that a superhero lives secretly inside us, if only we could find ways of releasing them.
Initially, of course, it was comic books that brought these dreams to life through robust drawings and gripping story-lines. These were devoured by millions the world over. With the rise of television and film, it was not long before the superheroes found themselves on the screens.
Incredible advances in film-making special effects techniques and computer-generated imagery made the seemingly impossible possible and sometimes frighteningly real. It was no longer necessary to use your imagination to fill in the gaps of what you saw on the screen – as you had to during the early, crude phase of the genre; now the superhero world seemed more real than the actual world as marvel upon marvel rolled out right there in front of you.
And all you needed to enter this fantastic world and undertake incredible adventures was the price of a cinema ticket, or the asking rate for a DVD.
Not surprisingly, audiences from Lagos to Shanghai flocked to the cinemas, generating huge profits for the producers and unleashing a myriad imitations. The Chinese produced their own versions with Chinese superheroes and Bollywood came up with ridiculously muscled heroes of its own. I have no idea if Nollywood conjured up a Nigerian superhero but will not be surprised if a reader writes in to say that one such creature exists on DVD.
Fiction shapes reality
Then, in the midst of this global superhero banquet came the news that Marvel had hired African- American Ryan Coogler to co-write and direct the next epic from their stable, Black Panther. It was to have an all-black leading cast, including African actors, and be set in a fictitious African nation, Wakanda. It was going to be big-budget – all of $200m.
One of the Hollywood taboos it is considered more than sacrilegious to break is tampering with a successful formula. Standing the formula on its head is akin to committing an unforgivable sin in filmland. Coogler was determined not only to stand the formula on its head, he was going to tear up and throw away the rule book on what made action films successful.
Despite the huge global success of Hollywood films, the heroes and heroines were invariably white. True, there have been an increasing number of outstanding black actors in American films and some of them, like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, the legendary Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and many more, often carried films through the characters they portrayed, but they almost always either supported or were partnered by a white protagonist.
They were often cast as criminals or placed in situations of racial tension, such as Sidney Poitier in the Heat of the Night, or like Will Smith and Eddie Murphy, put in comic roles or biopics (Will Smith as Muhammad Ali, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles) or in various interpretations of slavery – 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained.
The brilliant Spike Lee made several outstanding films depicting the full spectrum of black life in the US, such as She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, but these were serious films watched by a relatively small audience and not spectacularly successful at the box office.
By and large, Hollywood’s time-tested formula for stereotypes has always been the primacy of a white protagonist, who through violence, wisdom or charm, prevails over the world. The white man or woman are king or queen, supported or undermined by people of other races, but ultimately triumphant.
In the same vein, locations outside the US are regarded as mere backdrops for white stars to live out their dramatic lives while the locals hover about in the background, either helping or getting in the way and usually, most conveniently, becoming targets, either to be killed off or saved.
Africa has always been depicted as a wild, impoverished stomping ground for white heroic exploits and romances – The African Queen, King Solomon’s Mines, Mogambo, Out of Africa, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, Amistad and many more.
Perhaps the most common starring role for Africa has been as the personal fiefdom of Tarzan, son of an English nobleman, who is raised by chimpanzees (or gorillas in some versions), and grows up wild in the jungle.
In addition to swinging from vines and wrestling with crocodiles, he has an extraordinary facility with languages, speaking English fluently as well as ‘African’ (which is either a hilarious melange of Swahili, Ndebele and even Hausa – depending on who the producers get in as extras – or just gobbledegook), as well as being able to talk to animals. He is the supreme king of all he surveys, including the animal kingdom and his chief occupation is rescuing white explorers and fighting off ‘hostile’ tribals or evil Europeans – usually German.
Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, an American who never visited Africa. He churned out a large volume of these books, which became very popular around the early 20th century. In the process, and perhaps unwittingly, he set into motion one of the most enduring stereotypes of Africa and its relation to the Western world.
Another writer who helped stereotype Africa was H. Rider Haggard, whose novel King Solomon’s Mines created another paradigm – Africa as a place containing some of the world’s greatest troves of gemstones, luring Western adventurers to seek them out. His African characters were either barbaric or noble but naïve. Haggard, involved in the Anglo-Zulu war in Southern Africa in the 1880s, travelled extensively and knew Africa much better than Burroughs but his viewpoint was always that of the ‘superior’ white colonist.
Since those days, there have been countless adaptations of the Tarzan and King Solomon’s Mines themes and scores of films and TV serials. The latest versions were released only a few years ago and drew large audiences in the West.
It is quite sobering to think that perceptions of Africa have been shaped, formed and reinforced by works of fiction. But this is not unusual – fiction and films have been far more influential in forming subconscious perceptions, preferences and prejudices than all the learned tomes in libraries.
This is because novels, like films, create empathy between the audience and the characters, since readers and viewers identify with the protagonists – even if they don’t look anything like themselves. They see and understand the world from the hero’s perspective and respond with their emotions. They share the hero’s fears and hopes and rejoice in their triumphs. This is the magic of fiction.
Films take the experience a step further. While reading requires the use of imagination to conjure up images, sounds and feelings from the words, films appeal to all our senses.
We see and hear the action and the background music directs our emotional responses. In the hands of a master filmmaker, we leave behind our normal world and enter into the world of the film – we become the protagonists, the characters on the screen and we experience their thrills, their joys and their sorrows.
This identification is redoubled if the characters on the screen are like you, which in the case of Hollywood, means being white. Since the majority of Western moviegoers are white, it has always been assumed that to be successful commercially, a film must have white lead characters. This of course means that the millions of blacks and browns who watch Hollywood films see themselves depicted as only minor characters, as villains or in supporting roles.
It also means that the powerful stereotypes created by Hollywood are internalised and over time, become accepted as true. The Africa and Africans depicted by Hollywood become more real than the actual Africa.
This finds its outlets and is projected in various ways – from articles constantly depicting a poor and backward, conflict and superstition riddled continent (described scathingly by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the ‘single story’ of Africa) to open racism, abuse and degradation of black people in the West. In Africa, attitudes lead to exploitation and overlordship on the continent itself. It is what leads the likes of Donald Trump to issue his vile throwaway remark on African countries and not feel obliged to apologise for it.
The fiction of Africa and as a corollary, that of the black person, is far stronger than the reality.
This is the reason why a film like Black Panther, which centres around an advanced African culture with only black heroes and heroines – and villains – as the central characters, could never have been made in Hollywood.
That is has been made is a marvel in itself; that it is breaking box office records worldwide is the stuff of dreams. It has stood a mountain of stereotypes on its head and emerged triumphant. And as yet, nobody knows exactly what this means, which is why a torrent of words and analyses by vastly different writers and thinkers is still flooding the global media mainstream, the underground press and social media sites.
A major force of cultural change
As the film’s distribution in Africa is still uneven, the biggest impact it has made has been among African-Americans who regard Africa as the Motherland and feel that any slight to the continent is indirectly a slight to them.
Let’s start with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the retired US basketball legend, who has become an articulate social commentator. In conversation with the director of the film, Ryan Coogler, Abdul-Jabbar says:
“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-”sh**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.”
When he asked director and co-writer Ryan Coogler why he thought there was so much anticipation for his film, Coogler replied: “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.”
Abdul-Jabbar continues: “Yet the film is never preachy or strident. Throughout our conversation, Coogler emphasized that Black Panther aims to please people of all ethnicities and nationalities – a fun time for all moviegoers. Coogler, though, hopes they’ll get a little bit more. ‘I hope they take out of it a sense of enjoyment [but also] something that is not disposable, you know? From my perspective, things that are associated with the continent of Africa are often things that are associated with triggering the feeling of shame inside of me when I see them.’ ”
Abdul-Jabbar draws a salient conclusion from that remark: “That insight, that African-Americans have been subliminally programmed to feel shame about Africa – in part because we learn so little about it in public schools and in part because politicians like President Trump openly degrade it – motivated Coogler to visit Africa in preparation for the film. The 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.’ ”
Abdul-Jabbar continues: “Coogler also saw T’Challa (the hero of the film) as a timely reflection of today because ‘even though he is incredibly powerful, he has so many incredible women around him who are empowered to do what they are able to do in the film’: Be brave, smart and just as ass-kicking. This aspect is even more powerful because there is never any discussion about ‘strong women’; they are accepted as equals as if there had never been any doubt about it in Wakanda’s history. That’s what true equality looks like.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s reflections on the villain of the film are also worth noting: “Another rewarding distinction is the film’s sympathy for its villain, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). Rather than the typical crazed megalomaniac, Stevens is the embodiment of justified black rage at being treated like the White Man’s Burden as well as being betrayed by his own people.”
Writing in Rolling Stone, Tre’ Johnson describes one of the electrifying moments in the film: “Standing in the bay of a speeding Wakandan jet, a member of the African nation’s special forces unit – the Dora Milaje – advises their king, T’Challa: ‘Don’t freeze.’ Calmly, the leader replies, ‘I never freeze.’
“He’s assured, regal, radiating a near sub-zero-temperature sense of cool. And then, donning the mask of the legendary superhero known as the Black Panther, he torpedo-drops from the sky. A car explodes beneath him. He effortlessly somersaults through the air, lands sideways on a building in a neon-lit metropolis, races along the building’s wall and sails right onto the speeding car. Then the Avenger skewers the driver’s side tire and tosses it away like a bottle cap. Screen time: 10 seconds. How long have we been waiting to watch that moment become a reality? A lifetime.”
South African Khanya Khondlo Mtshali, writing in the UK Guardian, says: “There’s no denying how necessary Black Panther is for representation. In a world where diversity is so often treated as an act of charity instead of a reality, this film challenges the pervasive idea that our heroes can only be white and male.
“It provides generations of dark-skinned girls and women with heroes who share the same features which society ridicules them for. But as people descend upon their local cinemas to see what’s been touted as an excellent film, let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance. There’s plenty more work for us to do.”
As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it: “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.” What could have given her that impression? Surely not movies such as Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda, Beasts of No Nation, Tears of the Sun, Out of Africa, Born Free, Gorillas in the Mist, or a few dozen Tarzan movies? Not to mention a canon of pop songs sentimentally blessing the rains down in Africa and questioning whether they know it’s Christmas time at all? (Referring to the Band Aid song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims, which is now seen as patronising.)
Clive Irving, writing in The Daily Beast, declares that “Black Panther could blow one of history’s greatest lies right out of the water.
“The movie creates the technically potent black African city state of Wakanda that has somehow evolved without being touched by colonialism. Fantasy, right?
“Well, yes, in its comic book inventions it is. But this misses the point about one of the most insidious effects of colonialism in Africa. The whole history of the continent has been rigged by Europeans to suggest that before the arrival of the white man Africans had been incapable of creating any semblance of modern urban civilisation. So let’s get this straight: long, long before any of those colonialists turned up there were cities and civilisations built by Africans that, in the context of their time, were every bit as kick-ass smart as Wakanda.
“There’s a compelling irony in seeing a Marvel superhero collide directly with another fantasy, the remarkably durable Eurocentric view of world history in which the only legitimate origin of civilisation is the one that began in the ancient east from the Nile to the “Fertile Crescent”, bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
“Many educators have yet to catch up with the truth. Maybe they don’t want to, or are not ready for the implications. But – thanks more to modern archaeologists than to white historians – we now know there were great cities in Africa as early as 900 BC.”
These are just some of the views of various commentators on what the film has meant to them. Let us keep in mind that the vast majority of people who have watched the film and raved about it are neither African nor of African descent. Its commercial success proves that what people respond to is a good story well told and brilliantly acted, not the race of its characters.
What the film also proves is the enduring power of fiction and especially, film to mould perceptions. For centuries, Africa has been at the receiving end of a degrading perception; Black Panther has reversed this and injected a new pride in being African. That after all is what the African Renaissance project is all about. Black Panther has been a start on which to build – the rest is up to us.
The sets and costumes
The sets, costumes and weapons used in the film have also become a major talking point. The cast of the film turned up during the premiere in their African-inspired costumes and immediately caused a stir. Expect some of the bigger fashion houses to start turning out African-inspired clothing in the near future.
Jenn Fujikawa, writing on Marvel.com, reports that Hannah Beachler, production designer on the film, was inspired by avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid.
“And the more I started digging into Senegal and Nigeria and finding things, not necessarily futuristic-looking but very modern in their sensibilities as far as the way they’re putting together their elements and the colours they use, I was struck by that. I think in Kenya, Uganda, Johannesburg, no matter where you go, you really do see that they’re always keeping in mind the tradition,” says Beachler.
“It was important for us to keep that tradition, because 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.”
Talking to Melena Ryzik of The New York Times, Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer for Black Panther, says she followed a strict colour code in designing the costumes.
“There was a strict colour palette, drafted by Mr Coogler: Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, the Wakanda royal who is also the Black Panther, wears black; Danai Gurira, as the warrior Okoye, and her band of female fighters, the Dora Milaje, are in vibrant red; and Lupita Nyong’o, as the spy Nakia, part of the river tribe, is in shades of green. (Black, red and green are also the colours of the Pan-African flag.)”
For Coogler, blue “represented the police and authority” so she dressed Michael B. Jordan, as Black Panther’s rival, Erik Killmonger, in it.
Ryzik writes that Ruth Carter leaned on a visual ‘bible’ created by Hannah Beachler, the production designer, which laid out the districts and culture of Wakanda. The merchant tribe is inspired by the Tuareg, ethnic Berbers of the Sahara; the mining tribe resembles the Himba of Namibia, known for their red ochre body paint and leather headpieces. And for the artsy Step Town district, she scoured looks from an Afropunk festival in Atlanta, where Black Panther was shot. For the headgear worn by T’Challa’s mother, Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett), Carter says: “We found a traditional Zulu married woman’s hat, complete with the ochre that makes it red, and a hairy, furry texture on it.”
Ryzik adds that as a leader of a border tribe, W’Kabi (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is wrapped in the Wakandan version of a Lesotho blanket.
“The Lesotho do these wonderful blankets with these amazing prints on them that represent their king, they represent harvest,” Carter comments. “And we screen-printed on the other side with ‘vibranium’ [the fictional metal on which Wakanda runs], silver Adinkra symbols, so their blankets could be used as shields during fighting.”
The costuming for Nakia, played by Nyong’o, made the broadest leaps, Carter told Ryzik. The spy’s river tribe was based partly on the Suri of Ethiopia, so her traditional look was created from shells, beads and leaves.
For the Dora Milaje look, Carter took her inspiration from the Maasai women of Kenya. “In their red and gold outfits,” writes Ryzik, “these spear-fighting women are the elite warriors of Wakanda. The front of the costume is beaded in the same tradition that you see throughout East Africa, with the Turkana and the Maasai.” NA
The Plot of Black Panther
The character, Black Panther was first conceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966 to give black readers a character to identify with in the Marvel comics stable.
The action is set in the fictional state of Wakanda, a tiny country hidden away in a mountain fastness, that has never been colonised. Director Coogler is believed to have taken his inspiration from Lesotho and the southern African connection is reinforced as the characters speak Ndebele or with a marked southern African accent. Many or the costume designs are also typically from Lesotho.
Wakanda is ruled by a king played by South African actor John Kani who is brutally assassinated. His heir apparent, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, above right) must return to claim his right as the legitimate ruler by fighting in single combat against any challenger.
What makes Wakanda exceptional is that for centuries it has been in sole possession of vibranium, an alien element acquired from a fallen meteor. The element is not only powerful, it is virtually indestructible. By isolating itself from the world and applying the power of vibranium, the people of Wakanda have become very advanced technologically but still retain many cultural aspects.
By ingesting a heart-shaped herb affected by the element, one warrior acquires superhuman abilities and becomes the leader of all the tribes who make up the kingdom of Wakanda. Only the Jabari tribe refuses to recognise the Black Panther.
As custom demands, T’Challa defeats the leader of the Jabari tribe (Winston Duke) and convinces him to yield instead of being killed. The Dora Milaje is an all-female special forces squad headed by Okoye, played by Danai Gurira. Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is a covert agent for the Dora Milaje and in love with T’Challa.
Meanwhile, Ulysses Klaue, a ruthless white villain, assisted by Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who is from Wakanda but has become embittered during his time killing people for the US army, steals an artefact containing vibranium and plans to challenge T’Challa for the kingship. He wants to use the element to “free all the oppressed people and kill the oppressors”.
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 empower power and bring peace and Killmonger, who wants a war to end all wars.
These are the bare-bones of the story but the film contains some terrific scenes and a great deal of humour – especially from Shuri, T’Challa’s genius younger sister, who heads Wakanda’s Design Group and is played by Letitia Wright. She designs the Black Panther’s incredible costume and comes up with some incredible weapons.