Set in the mythical kingdom of Wakanda, Black Panther is effectively a bitter-sweet glimpse into the realm of possibility of what Africa could have become, had its resources never been plundered by its colonisers– a reality which, unfortunately, we’ll never actually be able to know.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t in the least take away from the empowering statement that the film has to make. Yes, it is a marvel film in theory targeted at 8 yr old boys, and yes, Wakanda is a fictitious nation, but for someone of Black African heritage, it is more than that. The film itself does not only pay homage to the uncolonised Africa, abundant in its natural resources, but it also acknowledges the assault of colonisation and its lasting impressions in a comical way so that even the ‘colonisers’ in the audience can partake in the laughter whilst also (hopefully) acknowledging its truth.
With Black Women in positions of power, sporting their natural hair, this film definitely challenges and subverts the status quo. For me, one of the most subtle yet powerful scenes is during the fight scene in the underground casino in Busan, South Korea, where Okoye, in disguise complains not only about the wig on her head, but also the tight, sexualising dress. In an intense moment during the fight, we see Okoye take down two men, throwing her wig into one of their faces; a statement that the West can shove their beauty standards down their own throats. But the film is not simply a lighthearted roasting of ‘another white boy to fix’, it is also one of criticism of the West and rightly so. The scenes in Oakland, California, in a visibly Black populated quartier, infuses the latent reality into this storybook film of how Black people are treated in (but not just limited to) America. In another scene, Okoye comments on the fact that guns are ‘primitive’. She states this with such sassy disdain that it is rewarded with laughter, but also, I hope, with reflection.
Here, we are provided with one of the exceptional moments of positive representations of Black people and Africa in mainstream media. The film takes on the hefty task of not only reconditioning the perception that Black people have of themselves by providing an empowering platform in which they play the rare leading role of the superheroes, but it also skilfully peels away at the complexity of the issue, informing us as to why it took so long for such a platform to be showcased in the first place. The image of Africa is still one of a poor, third world country, where cannibalism is a present-day practice. Indeed, in one scene M’Baku jokingly threatens CIA agent, Everett K. Ross that if he interrupts again, he’ll feed him to his children, only to break out with laughter and the declaration that in all truth, they are vegetarians. The point is that our perception of Africa is often informed by ‘outsiders’ and in a way that is often decontextualised. Africa is ‘poor’, but who stole its resources? Africa is ‘developing’, but who keeps on stunting its growth? M’Baku ordering Everett to keep precisely these uninformed opinions to himself (what could Everett really input regarding a culture and people he knows next to nothing about?) speaks beyond the current situation; it’s a regal order for the Western world to stop meddling in and dictating African affairs.
Whilst framed in the possibility of a ‘wealthy’ Africa, the film does not only focus on the material wealth that Africa was stripped of, but also on the lasting intangible effects of colonisation. The isolated case of Wakanda’s preserved natural resources against the background of the rest of modern-day Africa serves as a blatant reminder that present day African nations are direct products of colonial rule. The division, fraction and mistrust that are the deep-rooted consequences of colonial rule, are still felt today with the strong sense of community and belonging diluted and weaken in the aftermath. In many cases, the baton was passed on from the colonisers to the African elites and the fraudulent ethos of the colonising nations trickled down into the new formed governments. Killmonger therefore plays a dual role in the film, opening up, in my opinion, the discussion of what would happen if the baton was passed on once more to African Americans for example? Recently, there has been an interesting debate about Black Americans appropriating African culture and whilst of course the subject matter is completely different, I think the dynamics between an ‘insider-outsider’ coming into an African nation raises a compelling point for discussion. Killmonger could also potentially represent the ‘second-coloniser’, the African dictators that came into power post-colonisation. Stealing metal vibranium weapons is not exactly the same as stealing the country’s money, but it might as well be when the source of their wealth is principally from it. The conflict that breaks out between two of the tribes is an accurate analogy for much of the present day conflict all over the continent between different African ethnic groups, often at the hands of the governing party.
On the whole, the film is injected with a comedic dose, but don’t let this fool you. This is just the sweet stuff that allows those of us who are sensitive to digest more easily the fundamentally raw and uncomfortable issues that the film deals with. Of course however, the golden piece of advice comes with the close of the film with an underlying sense of solemnity from none other than King T’Challa himself. If you’re going to take anything away from this film, let it be this: that in the time of continual ‘crisis’ wise nations build bridges whilst foolish nations mostly definitely will build the barriers. Whatever crisis a nation is fighting, be it terrorism, immigration or the economic crisis, no barrier can keep you safe forever.