Written by Basil N. Hamusokwe, Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Zambia, Lusaka
Black Panther is one Hollywood movie that Africa will celebrate for many years to come. Media reports indicate that moviegoers throughout the continent were gripped with emotion and excitement as they watched the movie. The reception of the Marvel Studio’s blockbuster from different African countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, has been marvelous. Essentially, these countries represent the diversity of the cast.
But the Black Panther enthusiasm is not confined to Africa. In China, the movie had a solid debut, becoming the first Hollywood film to top China’s box office in 2018. In Saudi Arabia, it is revolutionizing the film industry as the first Western film to show in cinemas in 35 years, in a country which had a cinema ban on Western media and culture.
Undoubtedly, the film has assumed a global character and influenced nations and individuals. In the US, this euphoria has precipitated a movement among African American moviegoers who have since created ideas of a life in Wakanda, (an imaginary African country, whose land is rich with extraordinary resources like the metal Vibranium) an imagined society, which is resource-rich, where black people are in charge of their own affairs.
This semblance of a Wakanda society has resulted into an ideology dubbed the ‘Vibranium culture’ or ‘Wakanda For Ever,’ with institutions such as the University of Wakanda, and everything Wakanda. At least, this was the atmosphere in April at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during a symposium organized by the Directorate of Comparative Media Studies to discuss Black Panther: Culture and Identity.
During the discussion, a young African American female narrated her inspiration from Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), a teen girl genius princess of Wakanda. Shuri, the mastermind of Wakanda’s most astounding technological innovations, evokes the ‘yes we can’ consciousness among young black girls who thought the field of science and technology was an attribute or privilege of white people. Shuri is certainly a symbol of hope for most black girls.
What is for Africa?
But there is a twist in the form of this excitement for Africa. As most media reports suggest, Black Panther audiences in Africa feel more ‘humanized’. This is a film that has dramatically changed the narrative of Western films about Africa. Thus, to African audiences, Black Panther is a breath of fresh air in the global film industry.
The storyline has shifted from films that perpetuate a clichéd view of Africa as a dark continent. Departing from popular and hegemonic films such as Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda which portray Africa as a continent struck by war, hunger, disease and death, Black Panther shows an African country, Wakanda, which is resource-rich and in which black people control their own resources and run their own affairs.
However, in relation to film studies and cinematic fact, Black Panther also raises a lot of questions. For example, is it an African film or just a film about Africa? The reading or interpretation of the film content provides contexts. A quick appraisal of the film’s content may establish that the word “America” or “American” is mentioned many times compared to the name Wakanda or Africa or indeed a name of any other African country. Hence, I raise the question; is Black Panther a film about or of Africa? What constitutes African film?
Some writers argue that most Hollywood movies about Africa are scarcely African. And most African film production is scarcely African at all as a result of lack of resources and lack of access to service facilities. African filmmakers, if not black, are considered ‘foreign’. This kind of racial classification conveniently excludes on the basis of geographical, racial criteria.
In some of his works, Oswelled Ureke, a friend and African film scholar problematizes definitions of ‘African’ film. He argues that the concept of African film is based on content more than the techniques employed in the film. Accordingly, the informational nature of the film is seen to be its defining quality. However, the most common understanding is the fact that African film is mostly based on African myth and orality. This is a result of Africa’s general oral culture and traditions. This is easily observable in Black Panther through the mythical portrayal of characters in a spiritual realm as they consult with the ancestors in the land of the dead. In the film, body modifications, language, art, dress, fighting styles, magic and many other different symbolisms all demonstrate the African cultural traditions through a series of spiritual ceremonies.
However, what is also interesting in Black Panther is that it is rooted in Africa’s traditions while, at the same time, assimilating foreign theatrical traditions of the West – U.S and Europe. For example, “vibranium” heals bullet wounds, but so does African magic through traditional African herbs. This intersection of sci-fi and African culture has been dubbed Afro-futurism – is steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity – it imagines a black Africa in a futuristic world which embraces both African tradition and Western modernity.
Nonetheless, from an African perspective, a lot more questions can be asked about this great Hollywood film. Is Black Panther really about Africa or about the United States’ geopolitical dominance? This is partly demonstrated through the apparent struggle by the filmmakers in portraying and clearly distinguishing between the virtuous qualities of the Hero and the Villain. Even after my second viewing of the movie, I remained uncertain which character represented superhero virtues. And I keep wondering whether the supposed hero (T’Challa, the Black Panther) is, in fact, the villain or is the villain (Killmonger) the ostensible hero? Erik Killmonger, an American raised heir to the Wakandan throne and a former American black-ops soldier, is critical of the Wakanda tradition. Killmonger shows up in Wakanda to challenge for the throne, bearing the Western liberal ideology. Here, I ask the questions: Does this hero-villain struggle demonstrate geopolitical power between the US and Africa? Can a Hollywood film easily portray a typically African character as a hero over the US raised, CIA operative character?
Killmonger temporary ascends to the throne, in the process kills Zuri, the priest. Upon being installed and assuming the ‘Panther Spirit’ of the King of Wakanda, Killmonger burns down the medicine garden together with the traditional herb.
From the traditional African perspective, Killmonger’s behavior raises further questions: Does the killing of the priest and the torching of the traditional medicine garden demonstrate the power of Western modernity over the perceived primitive African tradition?