Making Sense of Black Panther: A Perspective
Okay, so I’ll be honest. I was dreading the release of Black Panther at least as much as I was looking forward to it. As soon as somebody said “Africa,” I got that familiar clenched-jaw, knotted-stomach feeling I get when I’m anticipating having to politely explain to somebody that yes, what they just said was, in fact, xenophobic and racist, and that no, just because Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé have exploited images of the African continent for profit, doesn’t make it okay.
Put simply, I don’t trust Western media with African narratives.
I had weeks to hone my skepticism, getting more and more cynical by the day. By the time I went into the movie, surrounded by people overflowing with hype, I was indifferent at best. When I walked out of the theatre, however, blinking rapidly and decidedly overwhelmed, I remember not quite having the words to articulate how I felt. Did I like it? That was simple enough, I loved it – irrationally so. I was already plotting on how I could see it again. Did I think it was an objectively good movie? Well… Recently, Lupe Fiasco went on a mini-rant, saying that people are unable to critique Black Panther like they would other films because of its cultural value. Which is not a lie.
But for me and for many, I don’t think there’s an inability to critique the film so much as a lack of interest in doing so. Major capitalist undertaking aside, Black Panther is so much more than just another film, and that became apparent as soon as we saw the cast. From the sub-storyline weaving through all the Marvel stuff, to the fact that the white characters were, at best, plot devices to help drive the narrative forward (lessons in white ‘allyship’? conversation for another day?), Ryan Coogler and his team were very intentional in cultivating the world of Wakanda. Black Panther was not like other films, at all. For better or worse, Black Panther was an ambitious exercise in representation.
Hearing isiXhosa in a superhero franchise of this magnitude was a peculiar kind of cognitive dissonance for me. The fact that the actors had taken the time to learn a real African language, rather than just making one up (looking at you, Tarzan), showed a respect for the continent that’s been lacking in Hollywood. Granted, most of the accents were… inconsistent, at best. But honestly, that meant very little in the grand scheme of things. Before I’d even had a chance to digest the language, mine ears detected the dulcet tones of “Wololo” and “Gobisiqolo” – two gqom mega-anthems that make people do foolish things on dance floors. I was torn between the sudden, bizarre threat of tears and the knee-jerk instinct to do the gwaragwara right there in my seat. Thankfully, I spared my friends the embarrassment and did neither, settling into an open-mouthed stance that I assumed for most of the rest of the film. Already, in those first few scenes, I became aware of what it feels like to see, and hear, yourself and your people reflected back to you in positive ways.
The sheer diversity of the ethnic groups that were represented, along with their nuances and mannerisms, was awe-striking. From the mountain-dwelling, snow-loving Jabari led by the fearsome (and infinitely hilarious) M’Baku, to W’Kabi’s rural Border Tribe, to Okoye and the fierce Dora Milaje warriors and all the beautiful Black brilliance in between; all the Wakandan tribes drew from existing African cultures – a refreshing counter-balance to the abundance of deliberately misrepresentative, stereotypical, reductive and essentialist views of the continent. It’s been said before, but the costume design team deserves ALL the awards. The attention to detail and the seamless blending of history and Afrofuturist themes showed how much time they must have spent doing their research. A Twitter user gave a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the cultures represented in Wakanda through fashion, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. To see this vision of an Africa untouched by colonisation, this imagining of a small piece of the continent that is brimming with wealth, allowed to develop into the picture of prosperity and harmony, was affirming in a way I didn’t know I needed.
And then came Killmonger.
Erik Killmonger is the embodiment of the lost brother. Folded into his character are the descendants of the Wakandan empire who don’t reside within its borders. The choices Coogler made in writing a mercenary so callous, so calculating, so violently punitive, and having him be the sole African-American character in the film is certainly questionable. It doesn’t lend itself to positive representations of African-Americans and, if digested uncritically, his character can be used to support people’s problematic biases, conscious or unexamined. It’s easy to feel strongly any one way about Killmonger. But to dismiss him as evil and power-hungry is to ignore the very real pain of being ripped from your people and what it means to never truly be able to return home, and to embrace him as a “Black revolutionary” is to embrace a version of Black justice that’s anti-Black woman and is wrapped up in using the white man’s tools for world domination.
The crux of unpacking the themes brought up by Killmonger’s arrival lie in the in-betweens.
Killmonger lays bare the very deep chasms that exist among Black people in and of the diaspora. He is a destructive machine, but not entirely of his own making – let’s not forget that the white supremacy designs and uses Killmongers for its own imperialist, capitalist gains. His story is fueled by a sense of retribution for his abandonment, but is also an example of what happens when Black people don’t talk to each other, choosing instead to make assumptions about each other’s realities, motives and intentions from opposite ends of the room. Undoubtedly, there has been fault on all sides. But it’s dangerous to talk about power in this film and conflate worlds. I’ve seen people slip into false parallels, talking of an Africa overflowing with resources that’s abandoned African-Americans, and using Killmonger’s rhetoric to justify their disdain for Africans. To be abundantly clear, the overwhelming majority of African countries do not even have control over their own resources, and it seems silly but necessary to emphasise that Wakanda is not Africa. That said, the conversations sparked by Killmonger’s character introduce impossible questions – questions about what we owe each other. How do we begin to complicate the privileges of being African and having connections to our land and our roots, when African-Americans so often don’t want to address the privileges and implications of holding an American passport? How do we extend a hand of invitation to learn and share in each other’s cultures when we have watched each other use and abuse them, on all sides, for profit and good times?
We all know Wakanda is an ideal. It’s easy to love. And one could argue that the Black Panther enterprise is a call for some version of Pan-African unity. But how do we begin to move towards whatever kind of Pan-Africa we’re going for when, so far, it’s only been possible in the realm of a fictional, ahistoric world? #WakandaForever is great and all, but where do you all disappear to when it comes to #AfricaNow? One critic invited us to “consider that the news of a fictional country resisting colonialism has spread faster and further than the real news of ongoing political turmoil in the only real country in Africa that managed to do so… Why is it easier to develop a Black Panther curriculum for young people in the United States than to do the same with Ethiopia, a real place with real people that did successfully resist colonialism but is now dealing with the fall out of indigenous imperialism?” Where is this level of showing up and showing out when it’s time to mobilise around contemporary African issues, or when African students at your schools are trying to make their needs as international students heard within Black communities? Really ask yourself: when the hype around this film dies – admittedly, in the somewhat distant future – will you be as passionate, as invested in the real Africa as you were in Coogler’s fictional one?