“Tell me a story, baba”: A Review of Black Panther
Black Panther, king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, has existed in comic books since 1966. Despite being older than several nations on the continent from which the character hails, he has never had a stand-alone film until now. In the few weeks since it debuted the big screen, Black Panther has broken several records. It is the all-time top-grossing film by an African-American director, beating even the most generous of analysts’ expectations. The film is also currently the highest-rated film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, coming in at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, despite a number of internet trolls who were downvoting the film prior to its release. Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, approved a $200 million dollar budget for the film (at least 30 percent more than budgets for other Marvel non-sequels like Doctor Strange). By all accounts this money seems to have been very well spent; Black Panther is currently the highest-grossing movie of 2018 and has made over 780 million dollars in global ticket sales.
Furthermore, the relevance of this film for African-Americans and those affected by the African diaspora as a whole is without question. Hollywood has often been called out for its lack of diversity, and Black Panther is an example of how Hollywood is taking greater steps to address this problem. The social impact of celebrating superheroes who look like people that aren’t often represented on screen is an important one. For that reason, Black Panther is a film of great cultural significance, especially at a time when people of color in America often question their place in this country.
But when Vann R. Newkirk II says in The Atlantic that “the film isn’t representation,” he isn’t wrong. In short, Black Panther is a celebration of blackness in the diaspora but only draws on specific representations of Africa to create a grander vision. It doesn’t actually incorporate accurate depictions of contemporary Africa to achieve its goal. I’m also not saying that it should, but it is worth pointing out that the acknowledgement of one type of blackness at the expense of others has a negative effect on all black people. It makes it even harder for other forms of blackness not being realistically portrayed to get wider recognition in the world.
Black Panther is supposed to represent a continent of 1.2 billion people. In and of itself, that is not a problem; films are always illustrative of their creators’ visions, but the fact that actual Africans played little to no role in the creation of this representation means that any “African-ess” depicted is through an African-American lens. Black Panther is described by Jamil Smith in Time as a film “about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world,” which doesn’t let itself get bogged down with the distinct identities of Africans from different nations.
For instance, the film uses Xhosa, a language from Southern Africa, as the native language of Wakanda, but some of the cast members studied Igbo from Nigeria. Never mind that these two languages originate on different parts of the continent, but the name of one of Jabari tribe is derived from Swahili, an East African language. The Wakandans also worship Bast, an Egyptian goddess. Black Panther’s fighting style is based on capoeira, a form of martial arts that originated in Angola. The weapons throughout the film are from a veritable slew of sources: from the Zulu assegai/iklwa (short stabbing spear) and isihlangu (shield) from South Africa and Lesotho, to a khopesh (an Egyptian sword) and the shotel (Ethiopian sword). If anything, the film is not a representation but rather an amalgamation of several possible representations of the continent.
Something that may come as a surprise to people is that most of the filming took place in Atlanta, Georgia, and Busan, South Korea—not anywhere near the continent Wakanda is set in. Apparently, aerial shots from Argentina, Brazil, and just a few African countries were all that was needed to “represent” what it means to be black in Africa. This discrepancy is reminiscent of a piece written by a Kenyan author by the name of Binyavanga Wainaina in 2005, called How to Write about Africa. In it, he offers a satirical take on the Western stereotypes that have been used by journalists, novelists, and historians when writing about Africa and its myriad countries, peoples, languages, and animals—and turned each cliché on its head.
Upon comparing the film and Wainaina’s article, one realizes that the similarities are more than perfunctory. “Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls”—check. “Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in [ascetic] splendour”—check. “Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners,employees of the World Bank”— check. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: “Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces.”—final check. We all know how lovely the sunsets in Wakanda are. And perhaps that’s the point.