Black Panther delivers a powerful reclamation of blackness and redefines African nations as anything but ‘shithole countries’.
That Ryan Coogler’s superhero-spectacular Black Panther has made an impact this week is nothing short of an understatement. In just a few days, the up-and-coming director has turned invisible black characters into the “overwhelmingly” visible. The film has made twitter and cinema audiences wild in their seats and turned over an impressive £2.67m on its opening night, making it the highest-grossing debut at the UK box office this year. Yet it is the dazzling reorientation of onscreen blackness as a source of pride, beauty, and joy that should be carved in gold as Black Panther’s greatest success.
Welcome to the vibrant kingdom of ‘Wakanda’, the colourful and futuristic home of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther. To the outside world, Wakanda is just another ‘Third World country’. Yet with each screen reel, Wakanda – and by extension Africa – is reimagined as the El Dorado of scientific wonders, an urban landscape of highly-advanced technology, of flying hovercrafts, magnetic-powered trains, and nanotechnology body-suits. Wakanda’s wealth and power derives from vibranium, an alien metal that absorbs kinetic energy and has fuelled the nation since it was deposited – in classic Marvel style – by a meteorite many centuries ago.
To protect this valuable and powerful resource from warmongering ‘colonisers’ – and later from the likes of South African black-market dealer Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis, who falls short only in his wavering accent) – Wakanda adopted a policy of isolationism. It is against a drum-beating and tense backdrop of conflicting ideals of isolationism and intervention, poverty and wealth, civil order and unrest, revenge and justice, that the movie plays out. Meanwhile across the equator, Coogler’s London sits grey, cold, and woefully behind.
Intelligent, strong and vivacious, these actors mark a milestone not only in Marvel’s female representation, but across cinema as a whole.
Fast-forward to 1992 and we’re now in Oakland, California (a nice homage to Coogler’s hometown), faced with a familiar scene: a couple of black boys playing basketball on a rundown estate. Parallel to Wakanda’s extraterrestrial success, is systematically oppressed black America where “everybody dies”. Coogler powerfully channels Afrofuturism to interrogate this blunt and bleak reality. Without support, wealth, and resources, how can orphaned children like Eric ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) rise up against their oppression? Jordan, whose character represents the suffering and fractured identities of the African diaspora, puts in a brilliant performance that triggers both our sympathy and frustration. Among other questions, Killmonger forces us to ask what separates and connects us: colour, borders, or power?
For some, the answer is clear: the power of representation that arises from an (almost) all-black cast – that is, a black cast with no slaves, mammies, or heartless thugs. The excitement of the audience – who make quips about “pounded yam”, cultural dance, and music – is infectious. Never before have black actors been so visible, so varied, and so overwhelmingly fantastic in a mainstream movie – even Barry Jenkin’s Oscar-deserving Moonlight (2016) didn’t carry such universal appeal.
Noble T’Challa is a superhero of Shakespearean proportions with echoes, thankfully, of Hamlet’s indecision and filial obligation rather than Othello’s jealousy and pride. His superhuman abilities result from a “heart-shaped herb” that was once affected by vibranium. What follows is some ultra-stunning cinematography and well-crafted combat sequences. T’Challa presents a quality rarely given to black men onscreen and off: vulnerability. “Don’t freeze”, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dor Milaje, an all-women special force, tells T’Challa when he’s about to be confronted with his ex, the empathetic and strikingly beautiful spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who enters the film fighting – in moves and words – for enslaved Nigerian women. Unlike other Marvel superheroes, such as the facetious Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man) or the witty Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Thor), T’Challa commands an unwavering respect that will have children across the country running to dress up as him.
Yet the biggest stars of Black Panther are the women – the dark-skinned black women – and the reverberations of this could be felt across the cinema, with afros proudly onscreen and in the audience. In Wakanda the women are the glue of society and no scene goes without their presence. It is a society where women choose the nation over love, while the men submit to the values of their women. From buzz cuts to bantu knots and braids, the visualisations are a striking pushback against the framing of natural hair as undesirable, unprofessional, and ‘other’. Proud Okoye is remarkable for her strength – and not aggression (a common trope for black women) – and demands the audience’s attention with her snatching of lives and weaponised wigs. Then in an empowering scene, Okoye reclaims natural hair as beautiful by calling wigs “a disgrace” and boldly rejects unobtainable Eurocentric standards of beauty in the process.
Black Panther is without doubt the Marvel movie that we all knew was desperately missing
Nakia, T’Challa’s romantic interest, is desirable because she is unapologetically black. A spy, brave warrior, evasive lover, and an empathetic humanitarian, Nakia is also undeniably multi-faceted. Contrast this with X-Men’s (2000) Storm (Halle Berry), who is significantly lighter than the comic book character she represents. Set against Hollywood’s battle with colourism which leads it to cast the most palatable, black women (read: light-skinned), Coogler’s radical departure from this is a bold affirmation to young black girls across the globe. These are the kind of images I would have appreciated as a young girl. And let’s not forget Shuri (dextrously performed by rising UK star Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s genius and witty 16-year-old sister, who “scorns at tradition” and fronts Wakanda’s technological innovations. Intelligent, strong and vivacious, these actors mark a milestone not only in Marvel’s female representation, but across cinema as a whole.
Black Panther is without doubt the Marvel movie that we all knew was desperately missing – and it doesn’t disappoint for a second. It’s so good that I’ve seen it twice and purchased the phenomenal Black Panther soundtrack (curated by the talented Kendrick Lamar). Dazzling, divine, and political, Black Panther is an electrifying ride that’ll have you shouting “Wakanda forever” long after the credits.
Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures