BY OLU YOMI OSOSANYA
In its 5+ weeks run, Black Panther has become the highest grossing superhero film in the US, one of the highest grossing in film history, it’s the most tweeted about movie in history, inspiring the M’Baku challenge, Killmonger memes and Shuri emoticons. There hasn’t been this sort of response to any other single MCU movie.
Like Coogler’s previous film Creed, Black Panther has a Fathers, Sons & Legacy theme running through; T’Chaka and T’Challa, N’Jobu and Erik; showing how their grooming shaped their worldview and philosophy which leads to the ultimate clash. They could be compared to a pre-Mecca Malcom X and Martin Luther King and they interceded in the struggle of the Black people and freeing them from institutional oppression and bondage, also similar to different approaches of their comic book counterparts Magneto (also Eric) and Xavier and their desire to see mutants free from oppression.
The movie which has been called “a movement”, examines the difference in the Black experience for those who live in the US and deal with racism daily and those who live in “the motherland” and have no experience with that; showing the real-life resentment that often rises between the two groups; cascading into how psychologically and emotionally, Black African men raised with fathers and opportunities turn out different from those Black American men whose fathers were absent .
Tradition is another powerful theme; as an African, it’s a gift and a curse; it preserves our culture and makes us different from the rest of the world, but it also holds us back in many ways from making bold steps into the future. Wakanda and its isolationist tradition was the bone of contention with N’Jobu, whose time as a war dog in America brought the epiphany that Wakanda could empower Black people who were being institutionally kept in poverty by the government. He sought liberation via weapons and technology and that was the legacy his son carried on. Confronted with the revelation of T’Chaka’s killing N’Jobu to stop him from carrying out his intentions, T’Challa is devastated and questions everything he has believed about his father as a man and King.
Black Panther has powerful representation of Black Women, Okoye, Counsel, General and leader of the Dora Milaje, Nakia, a spy travels the world liberating the helpless, Shuri, gadget mistress the smartest person in the Marvel Universe and Queen Rhamonda, matriarch and advisor. Feminism is so well interwoven into the narrative that it ceased to be feminist and a normalized way of living in Wakandan society. The natural hair of Wakandan women and the shaven heads of the Dora Milaje challenges Western beauty standards and in a scene where Okoye throws the wig she reluctantly wore to blend in on a mission in a goons face, a powerful “I am not my hair” statement hidden in an action sequence.
Each woman has agency, her own purpose, they are capable and assertive and in a role reversal, they all rescue T’Challa and Wakanda, they are the heroes of the story. In a scene between T’Challa and Nakia where he tries to convince her to stay with him in Wakanda, she turns down the cushy life of a Queen because she loves what she does and has a world to serve. She’s not going to give that up for a relationship and 2.4 children. Shuri at 19 spearheads all technological advancement and subverts the socially awkward nerd archetype by having a great sense of humour, pop culture and playing pranks on her brother; she’s confident and capable as she partakes in the battle, holding her own outside the lab and instructing the more battle-experienced Agent Ross on how to stop the weapons leaving the borders. Hollywood rarely portrays Black Women, especially dark skinned women in such a positive and powerful way and I hope this is just the catalyst that changes that.
Filled with enjoyable performances, a breakout role was that of M’Baku leader of the Jabari tribe, played by Winston Duke in his first movie role; stealing every scene he was in with his charisma, Igbo mannerisms, intonation and inflexions. He was also a character who held on to very traditional beliefs, rejecting the technological advancement, and staying in the mountains. He and his people the Jabari end up rescuing Wakanda from the usurper Killmonger. The Jabari, who for generations hadn’t mingled or participated in Wakandan life become part of the counsel and decision making.
Killmonger’s plan to use Wakanda’s advanced weaponry to take over the world; inspired a lot of “Killmonger was right” think pieces, an indication that many African Americans identified with his pain and worldview. Arming all oppressed people around the world and giving them a chance to overthrow their tyrants and rule sounds noble, revolutionary but history would remind us of how many times the US for their own reasons, armed oppressed people who would later become enemies of the US, notably, Operation Cyclone. After the oppressors are taken down, would it stop there or just power changing hands and a reversal of oppression?
As an African, three scenes stand out; two in the ancestral plane; the first when T’Challa sees his father for the first time post-death and doesn’t feel worthy to take his place, he bows and is asked to rise because he is a King now. The 2nd, after Killmonger, has taken over and T’Challa confronts his father about the secrets he’s uncovered. For an African, no matter how old or independent you get, yelling “you were wrong, all of you were wrong” at you Father and ancestors is a powerful thing; the impact I’m sure was lost on white audiences. The 3rd was when the council member played by Issac DeBankole responding to Erik’s “ask me who I am” basically shouts “who is your father in this land”.
Africa is a continent with 54 countries, so the concept of an African Accent is a tricky one, Hollywood typically apply generic accents which really can’t be placed and mostly just broken English. As Lupita and Danai actually grew up in Kenya and Zimbabwe respectively they were able to bring some authenticity. Chadwick continued his Madiba influence speaking pattern for T’Challa and the less that’s said about Forrest Whitaker’s Zuri, the better.
There is some odd looking CGI in the 3rd act fight between T’Challa and Erik, which looks more in place in a video game than a movie, the choreography of the fights aren’t as memorable as his fights in Civil War or even Coogler’s work in Creed. T’Challa also doesn’t come off as charismatic as he did in CA: Civil War. But it could be argued that the weight of the Kingdom in BP is different from a son after vengeance. The scene that was left on many lips was Erik’s dying words, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage”.
Black Panther has been called overhyped by many and maybe it was but it’s a fun and exciting movie with a lot to say about; the world we live in, race relations, colonialism and responsibility. It’s a big budget films which addressed a lot of race relation issues and represented black people as Kings, Warriors and Scientific geniuses, inspiring many black kids to see themselves as the same.
It has been criticized for the accents, not having an identifiable Africa, making Africans look exotic and not real and black folks championing it and making money for white-owned studios. Some of that may be legitimate in their eyes. Whatever their grievances, the response and its record-breaking strides have made a mark on how films with Black leads are perceived, throwing the first shovel of dirt on the grave of the age-old Hollywood excuse, “black films don’t travel”.
With the recent announcement of Sony Pictures Television and Ebony Life signing three new scripted TV projects including TV series based on the lives of the Dahomey Warriors, who were the inspiration for the Dora Milaje; Black Panther’s effect has already begun to touch Nollywood.