Black Panther – An Afrocentric Phenomenon

The film of a lifetime, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther brings everything you’ve been waiting to see in a superhero film explosively to the screen at once. Its cast of incredible black actors and actresses (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira) celebrates the representation we have been craving to see on the big screen for years. And this is what’s key. It’s not just about representing the masses, it’s about celebrating us in our natural light and bringing our differences to the forefront, instead of sprinkling us in here and there to fill a quota of “diversity”.

There is no doubt that Black Panther‘s incredible box office sales are hugely due to the race of its cast and behind the scenes crew. Much anticipated, it completely smashed box office sales in making $282 million in its opening. It also currently sits at $704 million. Its opening sales are now the biggest of any Marvel movie ever and the biggest for any black director ever.
The film roots itself unapologetically in the incredible nation of Wakanda, as opposed to the American settings we are so used to seeing. Nestled in Africa, Wakanda is the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the entire world. Rich in colour, with its vibrant greens and paradise blue skies, along with the vibrancy of its people’s traditional dress, it’s a real fantasy in every single scene. Everybody speaks Xhosa, the Dora Milaje all fight with spears, the head pieces and accessories, the array of skin tones, the natural hairstyles. The costumes worn are absolutely beautiful, particularly those of the Dora Milaje who are just my favourite people ever. The dancing, the ceremonies and rituals and the music really just excite something in you as you watch. If you were bored of Hollywood being Eurocentric, then that’s definitely not something you’ll have to worry about with this film, as it saturates itself with some of the most impressive parts of black history and culture.
Yet, at the same time as spotlighting the traditional, the nation refuses to limit itself. Its futuristic and technological character works alongside the richness of heritage that we see throughout. Huge high-rise buildings, zooming trains and other hovering and flying modes of transportation, weapons more advanced than anywhere else in the world. Everything rolled into one is what makes it such a desirable and Eden-like setting. The idea is certainly not just to open narrow eyes and say hey, this is what Africa could have been if their resources weren’t stolen. I think it’s even more so to shed light on the fact that this is a whole nation of strong, empowered and intelligent people too. It’s not just about what they had and what they lost, it’s about who they actually are.
One of the main things I respect about this film is the emphasis it places on character identity. All of them have their own distinctions, their own ambitions, their own plans for how they are going to execute their goals. The Dora Milaje for example are a hugely inspiring group of women who fight alongside T’Challa as his protectors. These are women holding their own, being portrayed as fierce not just physically but mentally too and powerful in their own right. In an iconic moment towards the end of the final battle, we see W’Kabi kneel down to Okoye in respect. The women in this film are so strong. We see it also in Nakia, who refuses to come home to Wakanda with T’Challa because she wants to aid and assist the rest of her people outside their hidden nation. Then there’s Shuri, whose skill and intelligence is behind pretty much all of the impressive technology we see in the film. There is just a real sense of solidarity throughout. Women are respected, men are respected, elders are respected. In an interview I watched, Lupita was questioned about the significance of women fighting not just for themselves, but also for men in the film. Really, this shouldn’t be surprising as feminism in particular is not about women rising above men, but simply being seen as their equals.  
Pretty much everybody in the film is fighting because they have a love for their people. Even in the film’s true villain Killmonger, there is little sense of exclusion. What Killmonger wants is essentially what Nakia pronounced she wanted from the film’s opening scene. They both want Wakanda to use its standing and resources to help the rest of their people outside its walls. The difference lies in the motives behind each of them. Whilst Nakia has a genuine empathy for those suffering, Killmonger is driven by his hatred of what white people did to his ancestors in the past. As with most villains in any narrative you write, Killmoger wants world domination for his people and he wants to achieve it through violence.  Killmonger’s desire to empower through violence and overthrow is both bitterly destructive and admirable at the same time. I read a review that likened the Killmonger and T’Challa dispute to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Really, both sides want the same thing, there is just huge disparity between their ideas on the right way to achieve that harmony.

And how refreshing it was to see a film where there wasn’t just space for one or two prominent black figures. There was space for everybody and copious amounts of it too. I think that with the way things are today, many black people have just become used to settling for that handful of faces like ours that we see in mainstream media. But to have so many faces that you can identify with, not just at the forefront of one film but truly brought into the spotlight internationally and as part of such a massively successful franchise like Marvel is tremendous. Just something as small as seeing an abundance of deep skin tones and natural hair is honestly a huge breath of fresh air. We’re starting to see more of our people represented naturally in the media. It’s something that still needs a lot of work in terms of how we are portrayed, particularly in terms of hair and make-up for me. I’m starting to see a lot of natural hair, but it’s always shown in one way – either out in an afro or out in natural curls. This is great don’t get me wrong, but we now need to steer away from the idea that the natural black woman only has one look. There are actual hairstyles that you can do with natural hair, just like with European hair or Asian hair and this is something I was so proud to see in Black Panther. There’s such a variety of incredible things about black people that they glorify.

As with many Marvel films, there is of course, that one powerful substance that everybody wants – Vibranium. It’s what the Wakandans have built their whole nation on. It fuels their city, it’s developed their weapons, it’s what Black Panther’s suit is made out of. His suit is seriously impressive too, with great features like being able to absorb impact, store the kinetic energy from it and then release it again. Our story begins when T’Challa’s father confronts his brother about having helped Klaue to steal large amounts of Vibranium from Wakanda. This is the kind of storyline you expect and it is satisfying.   

I think what makes this film’s narrative really successful is the way that it then steers you away from the satisfying and the obvious. It’s clearly not just about ticking boxes of what to include. We start out thinking that this is a story about the white man stealing from the black people and for a while you’re just sort of complacent with that. But when Klaue is removed from the picture pretty early on into the film and you realise that the battle is not all about Klaue vs the Wakandans, you can take a deep breath and feel relieved. I really didn’t want this to be a film about black vs white at all. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but it’s not the take I was craving for either. As I said earlier, it’s about collectivism, identity and fighting for what is actually right. Which is why the tensions were so high in this film. Having Killmonger as the real villain meant that for once, the motives behind the friction were rooted in my history. It’s usually very easy to decide who you stand with in superhero films as the villain is very clearly the villain. Yet, neither Killmonger or T’Challa were inherently wrong in this film. As I’ve said before, both sides did want the same thing. They were, at once, different and the same.
Black Panther‘s engagement with history adds a dimension that sets it apart from the rest of the Marvel films I have watched. The recognition of those horrifying events in black history really adds emotional weight to the narrative as well as a commendably executed humorous layer too! With all the little quips here and there, such as Shuri calling Ross a “coloniser” and making a comment about how he’s another white boy she has to fix were hilarious. But most poignant for me was when, after the final defeat, Killmonger said “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” That really got me. 
I absolutely loved this film, I thought it was truly phenomenal. I really have nothing to fault it on and I just honestly feel so proud. If you want to see some interesting behind the scenes footage of some of the scenes in the film then you can watch here

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