Kimberly Rey delves into what Black Panther means for people of African heritage, both in diaspora and those born on the continent
Six months ago in February of 2018, the highly-anticipated Marvel Film, Black Panther was released to huge acclaim and box office success. Leading up to its release, anticipation and excitement surrounded it. Commentators and fans alike thought about the implications of a black superhero, a movie with an all
When the film finally arrived, it was met with reactions that were overwhelmingly positive. We saw viral videos of black people expressing their joy at seeing representation, conversations buzzing about the relationships between continental and diasporic Africans, and cinemas booked out for black youth to see the film.
Of course there was criticism too, and the film saw endless analysis of its complexities across the press. Diasporic African Americans were chastised for the shape of their engagement with the continent: superimposing a fantasy into real space, inhabited by Africans. African Americans were frustrated over the unsympathetic representation of villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). With half a year passing since the movie was released, I decided to explore the ongoing conversations sparked by Black Panther between Africans born on the continent, and diasporic African Americans.
What do people like about the movie?
Every interviewee agreed that beyond the politics of the film, or their feelings about the complexities, they loved the opportunity to see black people onscreen. Whilst sceptical of the hype, South African student Bonolo Madibe, thought the film was visually stunning; “I think they did a very good job of researching the costumes and context, although in some places I did feel like they there were putting things together”.
The inclusion of dark-skinned actors was important to Kenyan student, Mwango Moragia. When talking about the scene where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) go to an underground casino in South Korea (pictured left), Mwango said, “Just the visibility of two dark-skinned women, not brown-skinned, but dark-skinned women coming down such an iconic setting in action movies, like ‘Bond girls’, who usually embody European beauty standards, was amazing.” She adds “I even found myself to be a little emotional during the film and I didn’t quite know what I was feeling, but later on I think I felt that way because I had been represented.” Shayla Womack, a Black woman from Ohio was also pleased to see a cast of black actors, and dark-skinned people portraying a range of characters, not just the villains.
Student, Nomonde Ndwalaza was pleased to see the opportunities the movie afforded African actor. “It was nice to see South African actors, who can struggle in the South African acting market, going overseas and doing really, really well.”
Meanwhile T’Challa’s opportunity to talk back to the elders after learning the story of Killmonger was the element of the movie that most appealed to John Brown, a Black man from Ohio. “He went to the ancestral plane and he told them they were all wrong. We don’t often address generational problems, but he saw a different way to do things and addressed them in his community. And this can speak to how things could play out in our own lives, how it’s important we call out the toxic people and practices in our communities.”
What are the problems with the movie?
Mwango had felt anxious about how the African continent was to be shown, before the release of the movie. “I wasn’t really excited because I knew it could go left or right considering the representations of the continent. You know we’ve seen Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland… We’ve seen a lot of butchered representations, so I could only afford myself intrigue”.
Across the board amongst those born on the continent, there was an issue with the ‘African’ accents that the cast of the movie used. This caricaturing has been a widespread cause for criticism, and raises sensitivities for those who have to deal with prejudice about their accents.
“I don’t think we had the chance to really understand Killmonger” comments John, who feels that the character was shallow, “there was a lot of trauma to unpack” he adds. An unsympathetic portrayal sees Michael B. Jordan’s character painted as a villain but “we don’t see how the CIA are involved or how Claw is involved… sometimes there is a lack of holistic global awareness about how these institutions are violent and how whiteness makes it seem less threatening”. As a viewer he found that there was more to be drawn out through character’s story regarding the “historical disconnects” as well as the “unchosen circumstances” that some Black Americans experience.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t choose to be separated from our culture, our background, where we kind of became who we are”, said Nichole Moorman, a Black woman from Ohio.
Yet Black American student Brandon said: “I think there was a lot of truth to [Killmonger’s] character. First, Black bodies have been used as weapons in war for all of history, so his anger and his position as a person represent that. I also think it’s accurate that he is a villain; as a successful Black man, or person for that matter, in America, you will always be villainized, always be demonized.”
What does it mean for diasporic relations?
Black Panther undoubtedly draws upon relations between continental Africans and diasporic Africans, and in this case African Americans.
“I think Black Panther was also just an opportunity to imagine ourselves outside of the colonial experience” said Nomonde, who is South African “in terms of what it would have meant for us to be definitive and in control and not have postcolonial problems today.” She adds that this intention leads to the romantic and grandiose portrayal of Africa and Wakanda. “Wakanda seemed to play into the western world’s idea of what Africa is” according to Rutendo.
“We’ve been conditioned to see Africa in this certain negative way, and its not our fault, but it’s what’s we’ve been conditioned to see… So I think this film said ‘hold up, there’s a whole other side to this culture, whole other side to this world to open your eyes to”. Shayla acknowledged that the film could have the potential to give a different narrative to what she feels Black Americans, or Americans in general, have been conditioned to think of the continent.
Brandon often thinks about unity between Black people, however, he thought that the film exaggerated these politics “I feel like the idea was oversold, that if [diasporic African Americans] were to come back, that we would come with violence and try to take over; I think that was dramatic.”
The way in which the movie played with a utopian representation of ‘Africa’ juxtaposed with its portrayals of African Americans provides an insight into these diasporic politics. ““if we look at all the representations in the movie of African Americans, it was spaces of violence and poverty for the most part. But if we look at the binary, the only representation of Africa we got was Wakanda.” Mwango was interested by the lack of criticism of Killmonger, yet the overwhelming celebration of the film by African Americans.
Are we expecting too much from a Hollywood movie?
Black Panther is now the highest grossing superhero film in history, but for many of us, this box office success isn’t enough. We hope to see it further a disjunctured conversation between Africans and the diaspora, to remedy the ills of underrepresentation – and so much more.
“Can’t we just enjoy the film?” Rutendo asks, when I question whether its fulfilled political hopes. There have, for example, been calls for some of the film’s proceeds to be used to pay the bail and bonds of incarcerated Black Panther Party members. Should the production team take on these responsibilities?
“No one has asked if Spiderman is saving endangered spiders! Why do we ask those who are oppressed to do all of the work of undoing or educating, as is this film isn’t already doing something so important. I think it would be great if that could happen, but our work as Black people, as women, as queer people, as whoever you may be, can’t do it all, and we gotta respect that.”
Bonolo sees the ultimate benefit of the film in creating a “universal Blackness”. With this kind of broad understanding of who we are, a path to unity is “collaboration between diasporic and continental people… and this collaboration needs to go beyond Nigeria and South Africa because the African continent is rich, rich and has so much to offer.”
Yet, Brandon said he had difficulty in celebrating the film as a win. “I really liked the film, don’t get me wrong…but I still think about where our money is going who is getting that cheque. I would want to see us own production companies and celebrate in that way”.
Black Panther had instilled a sense of pride according to John. “If we can feel pride as individual Black people, that can expand to feeling pride for each other, no matter where we come from; there is power in the duality of who we are.”
You can find the interviewees here (listed in order of appearance)
Bonolo Madibe @bonolomadibe
Nomonde Ndwalaza @Nomonde_N
John Brown @JOB_VI
Mwango Moragia (IG) @soulinthesun
Rutendo Chabikwa @tedoex
Nichole Moorman @TaijuanNichole
Shayla Womack @shayla_sharee
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Kimberly Rey is a masters student in Global Media and Communications at the London School Of Economics and Political Science. She is a freelance writer, a community and arts organizer, and a music lover sitting at the intersection of art, politics, community, and justice. Follow Kim on Twitter @kimreynolds24
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