BLACK PANTHER. Directed by Ryan Coogler with Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Basset, Forest Whittaker, John Kani, Atandwa Kani and more.

KAT MANNE reviews

'Black Panther'

It is usually advisable to buy your movie tickets beforehand but considering that the first screening of Marvel’s latest superhero flick, Black Panther was last week, I thought we’d easily book seats a few hours prior to the show. I was wrong. We stood at the machine watching as the seats disappeared and ended up booking the last show of the evening. At least it wouldn’t be as busy, I thought, only to arrive twenty minutes early to a line that spanned the length of the room, all the way from the popcorn stand to the stairwell exit. After some thought, I realised that most of these Capetonians couldn’t afford to watch the film last weekend and I felt a renewed sense of fellowship and excitement as we filed into the theatre to watch this amazing film.

Wakanda

Explorers have searched for it, called it “El Dorado” – Ulysses Klaue

One of my favourite aspects of this Marvel film is the use of extreme long shots. The landscapes are expansive and Wakanda differs from less developed first-world countries by making use of this space without disrupting nature. The oral history that introduces us to the nation at the beginning of the film indicates a deep connection to the land and a peaceful coexistence. The imagery anchors this practice with a fumeless city and modern structures complementing mountainous peaks, large mechanisms hiding in river beds and Vibranium-fuelled subways in vast underground tunnels. Wakanda is an effortless Utopia without falling into complete disarray and becoming a dystopian setting. The country links spiritual transcendence with technological advancement and a ruler that doesn’t destroy the state in a quest for power.

The Implications of a Hidden African Nation

'Black Panther'

The king – T’Challa, leader of Wakanda, the Black Panther played by Chadwick Boseman – is a passive man. He doubts his ability to rule and yet he is steadfast and calm, making decisions after careful calculation and feedback from his counsel and maintaining dignity in challenging times with the reserved demeanour of an introvert and the humour of a leader fully aware of the mental stress placed upon his protectors, his friends and his family. The Wakandans constantly remind us that their country has existed in this peace and harmony because they are hidden from the rest of the world – particularly, hidden from the West.

It is a character from the West that brings chaos to the nation with a thirst for power and revenge and yet he introduces a change in the ideologies of the Wakandans by initiating the distribution of technology to lead an international black resistance to white power. Although this attempt to ship weapons is thwarted by a white ally (who only took the Wakandans seriously after they literally saved his life), King T’Challa honours the wish of the African American villain and decides to share the knowledge and wealth of the Wakanda through outreach to assist and uplift black and African people world-over. This is an exceptionally important turn of events after characters like Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi are against helping refugees. Of course, his position changes when a foreigner avenges the death of his parents and later takes the throne. Initially, I found the dialogue around foreigners and outsiders quite concerning until it became apparent that not only is xenophobia and afrophobia addressed in the film but it is addressed by the villain, Erik Killmonger – a crowd favourite played by the handsome Michael B. Jordan.

Political Controversy

'Black Panther'

There are many interesting critiques of the film circulating social media threads. One frequent query criticises the name of the Wakandan superhero, asking why the word ‘black’ has to be in the name of the film. Why not just call him ‘Panther’ instead? The simple answer is that he is named after the wild cat which is referred to as – you guessed it! – the Black Panther. The King of Wakanda consumes the heart-shaped herb which enhances his senses giving him reflexes, speed and strength similar to that of a cat. When the Vibranium meteorite shook the land of Wakanda, it caused a mutation in the heart-shaped herb giving it healing and enhancing properties. The people deemed it a gift from a cat god known to protect people from diseases and evil spirits, a god by the common name of Bast, praised by the Wakandan tribesmen as the Panther God. The champion of the land became the personification of the black panther, hence the name Black Panther.

Another popular thread states that Black Panther is a ‘black’ film and fans were making it about race. An interesting position as the previous Marvel films are not deemed ‘white’ films pushing a Western agenda with one ‘token black guy’ at most. Not only are white people represented but Everett Ross played by Martin Freeman is a key player in protecting the resources and anonymity of Wakanda. Black Panther is not a black film but it does represent black people, an array of African cultures, black Americans and black women in positions of great power. The fact that this surprises people to the point of anger is the very reason we need to normalise this kind of representation.

Representation Matters

Cognitive dissonance combined with afrophobia and racism can override the ability to think logically and show empathy which is why representation is so important, it combats stereotypes and otherness, making it easier for people to overcome difference and understand the complexity of privileges protected by the kyriarchy.

The film begins with an oral history on the unity of tribes and we see it represented in a collage of costumes based on traditional garb from many African nations and yet the leaders are more concerned with the preservation of Wakanda than the struggle of black people world-over. T’Challa’s position on the matter changes after listening to the argument of the resourceful spy, Nakia played by Lupita Nyong’o and the lamentations of Killmonger. Not only is Nakia strong, independent and intelligent but she anchors a moral message of empathy, outreach and togetherness that brings conflict to the counsel.

We see more representation of strong black women in the king’s guard, a group of loyal warriors made up of beautiful dark-skinned women. Okoye is the general, played by the inimitable Danai Gurira, dedicated to protect the king from danger. She fights with a traditional Vibranium-encrusted spear and fends off several armed attackers easily, deeming their guns ‘primitive’. I don’t think I’ve seen anything as graceful and powerful as Okoye fighting on screen and personally, I felt elevated. Many people see the statistics of gender-based violence in South Africa but a lot of men and white folks don’t fully grasp the dangers of women who travel on a daily basis in and out of dangerous areas.

'Black Panther'On the way home, I felt myself thinking of Okoye with renewed belief in my ability to fend off sexual harassers and more importantly – a belief in my right to. The film does not simply depict these women as warriors and generals, black women are respected elders and leaders of their tribes advising King T’Challa, they are queens showing the power and wisdom of a matriarch, they are spies like Nakia conducting missions to save fellow Africans from trafficking and of course, Wakanda’s favourite technological innovator, Princess Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, teaches us about the wonders of science and the use of Vibranium.

Spirit of ubuntu

One of the last things I want to talk about is an article I saw on my news feed stating that Black Panther was not made for Black Americans. As a South African viewer, I must disagree. Black Panther illustrates the pain and loss of African Americans and not only does T’Challa honour Erik’s dying wish to save black communities across the globe but he challenges his ancestors to illustrate the importance of togetherness.

The highly-melanated cast portrays the majesty and beauty of the Wakandan people in an exquisite metropolis depicted with cinematic artistry. Black Panther is afrofuturism at its best with a superhero who practices the African philosophy of ubuntu by sharing the resources of Wakanda in order to unite humanity.

WS