It’s true – You don’t exactly expect to find your thoughts being drawn to the writings of a dead academic (even a great one) whilst watching a Marvel movie, but if there’s one thing that becomes clear whilst watching Ryan Coogler’s quite frankly epic rendering of the Black Panther mythos, it’s that this is a movie unafraid of demolishing convention and shifting the paradigm:-
A mainstream film can’t have an almost entirely black cast? Yeah, well, about that…
Female characters can’t have genuine agency, or talk with each other about issues other than their romantic interest in a male lead? Yeah let’s scratch that too.
Deep geopolitical and cultural themes are too highbrow for popular culture and mainstream audiences to swallow? Whatever.
Africa is basically a ‘shithole’? Hm, well let’s just say this movie begged to differ…
And so maybe it wasn’t that strange after all to find myself thinking, as I watched, of Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British-Protected Child – a collection of memoirs-cum-essays in which the Nigerian author explores his continually evolving relationship with Africa, lamenting the many assaults that have been made on it and instructing his reader to become aware of how colonialism (and, more recently, US foreign policy) has interrupted the continent’s narrative, and why we should be ‘wary of those easy, facile comments about Africa’s incurable poverty or the endemic incapacity of Africans to get their act together and move ahead like everybody else.’
Implicit throughout, along the edges of Achebe’s every caustic sentence and argument, is an idea; a question – What would Africa, the most resource-rich continent on the planet, be if not for the many thefts and assaults that have been committed (and omitted) against it?
If only, Chinua, you could have seen Wakanda…
Dashikis and anti-gravity fields.
Ankara print and sophisticated nanotech.
Tribal scars and advanced hi-tech weaponry.
The film’s 135-minute running time is positively suffused with these kinds of afrofuturistic images – tribal yet modern, afrocentric yet global, traditional yet contemporary, old and yet so, so new. In Black Panther, not only has Coogler imagined an Africa where, unmolested by the attentions of the West, the disconnect between tradition and innovation is utterly dissolved; he’s also envisioned an African culture – with all its colour, spirituality and vibrancy – with some pretty darn progressive gender politics.
Like Lupita N’yongo said at a special screening of the film in London last month: –
“Wakanda isn’t brandishing feminism, Wakanda just is feminist… Women are allowed to be equal. They’re allowed to be warriors and queens and generals and scientists… I don’t want to see a world where only women are in power. I want to see a world where we [men and women] can both have power. Where I can speak up and be heard, and my brother can speak up and be heard, and I don’t need to thwart anyone for my voice to be heard – that is the image of Wakanda that we have in this film.”
Which you’d think is pretty heady stuff for a comic book adaptation. And yet these themes have lit up the zeitgeist to the tune of more than half a billion dollars at the time of writing (yeah, the film took that much in less than a week. And that was before it had opened in the lucrative markets of China and Japan).
Which has got many in Hollywood scratching their heads and asking why….
I mean Black Panther is a ‘black film’, right? And black films don’t sell, so goes the popular thinking. But I guess this is where things get kinda interesting…
Because on the one hand, you could say Black Panther is a black film. But you could also say it is not.
Gender politics are not black issues, they’re human ones. What constitutes a nation’s remit in global affairs (a major theme in the film), again, isn’t a black issue, it’s a question being asked in Germany where debates about how many Syrian refugees should be allowed into the country are ongoing, the United States where the current president agitates for a wall to be built along the Mexican border, not to mention here in the UK as we debate immigration policy and negotiate what sort of exit from the European Union we’re to face about a year from now. What and who a nation is and isn’t responsible for is a fundamental question at the heart of international politics.
And this is part of what truly makes this film so impressive – how incredibly layered, ambitious and universal it is. Which, I guess you could say, has been a theme of the source material dating all the way back to the 1960s comics of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. And unavoidably so, because T’Challa/Black Panther is not a billionaire playboy arms dealer turned hero (Ironman). Or former deep cover operative with a newly discovered conscience (Black Widow). He’s not the results of a science experiment gone wrong (Hulk). Or, for that matter, a science experiment gone right (Captain America). He is a king – a head of state, and, as such, is confronted with the big philosophical and geopolitical questions that attend his position.
That Coogler chose to face these matters head on and so skilfully integrate them into the narrative is impressive enough. That he chose to do so by also referencing, front and centre, the societal effects of the transatlantic slave trade, and, while he was at it, opening up a conversation on how these things have shaped the relationship between Africa and its diaspora… well, to be honest, I have no words to describe just how remarkable I think that is.
And so maybe it’s this that is most redemptive and cathartic about the viewing experience: The idea that a discussion about one of the most devastating assaults on a culture and people group in history – a discussion that is so important yet all too often avoided – can actually be had in a mainstream setting, in a Marvel movie of all places. But what truly elevates Black Panther (perhaps even above its MU predecessors) is that it isn’t content to only explore and voice the effects of the past, but goes on to imagine how they might be synthesised into a compelling vision of the future – i.e. Wakanda. As N’yongo puts it…
“This film is celebrating that ancient wealth that [Africa has] and that we overlook too often, and then offering us a view of a future we can then create if we can imagine it.”
And, well, it just doesn’t get any more afrofuturistic than that, does it.