Marvel Studios’ new film “Black Panther”, directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”, “Creed”), is an interesting and delicious juggernaut. One one hand, it tries to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe machinery. On the other, it tries to address some really disturbing and sensitive aspects of African colonial history, both in contemporary Africa and in America. Dig deeper and it provides nuanced insight into the nature of contemporary tribalism.
Opening with a flashback, “Black Panther” begins with how the nation of Wakanda (a fictional country in Africa) was created by five tribes when a metal called Vibranium fell from space to the continent. It explores the possibilities of what could have happened had Africa not been colonised and enslaved by the West. A key orbit of the story is the possession of Vibranium, which is the most powerful metal in the world, for if you remember, Captain America’s shield is made of Vibranium.
A warrior consumes a heart-shaped herb that was affected by the metal and gains superhuman abilities. He becomes the first ‘Black Panther’ and unites all the tribes (except the Jabari Tribe) to form the nation of Wakanda. Over time, the Wakandans use Vibranium to develop advanced technology and isolate themselves from the world by posing as a Third World country. The first conceit of the film is set up by the fact that Wakanda was never colonised and with its abundance in Vibranium, became the most technologically-advanced nation in the world. In a sense it shares some parallels with Ethiopia which was never colonised and kept its resources intact.
Chadwick Boseman’s protagonist King T’Challa, the current Black Panther, has inherited this kingdom after the death of his father King T’Chaka in the events of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). He strives to maintain the goodwill of his father’s legacy and the secrecy of Wakanda from the rest of the world. There is a deep sense of tribal pride which forms the undercurrent of the film.
The second confluence is set up with Michael B. Jordan’s character Erik Killmonger who is set up as the primary antagonist of the movie. He is radicalised from his time in America and presents an alternative view to the Wakandan philosophy. He believes that with the help of Wakandan resources and might, the plight of Africans living in other parts of the world might be eased. He believes that Wakanda and its leaders are morally bankrupt. They’ve isolated themselves with their wealth and technology and are indifferent to the fate of the African diaspora. They have great power, but they won’t take responsibility, cloistering themselves away from the world, when they could rule it, inverting racial and colonial hierarchies. There is an interesting twist to his character which is revealed towards the end of the movie. His motives stem from a reasonable anger due to an event which occurred early in his life. How this dynamic plays out in the movie is an interesting study of postcolonial geopolitics.
Both confluences come to play when the movie imagines a future where an unconquered tribal society become conquerors themselves in the service of liberation and asks us, the audience: wouldn’t it have an obligation to the African peoples and their descendants, who lacked the resources to defend themselves? And if it took revolutionary action to liberate them, wouldn’t that revolution be justified, just desserts after centuries of theft and bloodshed?
This is a section where a movie bows down and tends to pander to the global capitalistic demands of sharing tribal resources with the rest of world. If they don’t do so, they are labelled as savages and ‘simple primitive farmers’, as one white character mentions in the movie.
This is a part of appeasement politics, which the movie, for all its noble intentions, could have avoided. I also don’t agree with the fate of one character who chooses to die and wishes to buried in the sea, ‘like his ancestors who threw themselves from slave ships’, rather than live as a captive and possibly a free, redeemed man in the future. As Judith Butler poetically argues in her book, “Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence” (2004), “it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief, besides a cry for war.”
The production design and the score could also have been better. The production design especially feels like a mash of London and Johannesburg, rather than something deeply ethnic and Afrofuturistic. To explain the concept of Afrofuturism, one can refer to Jamie Broadnax’s article, ‘What the Heck is Afrofuturism?’ She explains that Afrofuturism is, “the reimagining of the arts, science and technology seen through a black lens. What makes Afrofuturism significantly different from standard science fiction is that it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturistic, it must be rooted in, and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.” It is with the second part of this description, where I feel that the movie flounders a bit. Even though it does present a glorious vision of Wakanda, on close observation, one can’t help but notice similarities with Western architecture such as skyscrapers, hyperloop trains, etc. For a movie trying to promote African culture, a little more insight into African architecture would have helped.
It is however graced by the breathtaking tribal costume design of Ruth Carter and the stunning cinematography of Rachel Morris (nominated for an Oscar this year for her work on “Mudbound“, the first female cinematographer to be nominated). The performances across the board, especially Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and a technological wunderkind who develops the tools and weapons deployed by her brother, and Danai Gurira in a star-making turn as Okoye, the fierce leader of Wakanda’s royal guard, are spellbinding.
Comparisons with “Wonder Woman” (2017) are bound to happen. That was the first female-led superhero movie, this is the first African led superhero movie, after a long time (1993’s “The Meteor Man” has that honour). But this is the first African led superhero movie that has really captured the zeitgeist. One does ponder as to why it has taken the genre of superhero cinema for global audiences to really take note of these issues. A string of recent critically acclaimed movies such as “Selma” (2014) and “Queen of Katwe” (2016) tried to ignite the conversation on both the African identity as well as feminism, but to little impact in terms of audience response. Maybe the aforementioned success is to do with the successful Marvel and DC machinery. Or maybe it is being seen as a balm in the whirlwind of hateful racial politics that has engulfed the world. Both movies are either about a gender or a community that has for long being kept on the sidelines of narrative cinema, and are now getting a space in the sun. Both speak to a change in perspective and a genuine desire in cinema for a chance to mirror the genuine eclectic variety and multiculturalism that drives the world in the 21st century. In summation, it is nothing short of a cultural revolution. We can only hope that this trend is here to stay.