The Black Panther movie is revelling in box office record-breaking glory, so far raking in an estimated $850 million and being predicted to hit $1billion by end of the month. But is the Hollywood superhero blockbuster changing engrained western perception about Africa? And why is the movie such a marvel to many Africans and Black Americans beaming with pride? reGina Jane Jere reports
Hollywood and Western cinema at large have long reduced their portrayal of Africa to either backwardness and Safari, bloody conflict and violence, misery and poverty, not to mention disease and hypersex – cue Bloody Diamonds, Black Hawk Down, Hotel Rwanda, Outbreak, and most recently the 2015 Beasts of No Nation.
Even in movies such as Independence Day and Casino Royale Hollywood’s penchant to stereotype Africa as uncivilized made it into some scenes.
The unwritten rule perhaps is that a realistic and positive portrayal of Africa or any afrocentric film, would (ahem) be unrealistic and unbelievable, but most of all unprofitable.
Prior to Black Panther, writes Tom Brueggemann on IndieWire: “the biggest-grossing film with a black ensemble cast was Straight Outta Compton (adjusted: $180 million domestic). The two films with black leads that grossed over $500 million adjusted, Beverly Hills Cop and Men in Black, were more than a quarter century ago. And, there was the eternal concern over overseas performance.”
He adds: “At some level, this fear became self-fulfilling prophecy. Resources weren’t allocated to worthy directors and actors, so nothing could disprove the theory.”
Well, as many including Brueggemann are now reporting, Black Panther will not only be one of the top-grossing films of 2018, it is also set to be one of the most profitable.
This epic movie-of the-year so far, also not only intellectually engages its viewers but puts or should put an end to all form of clichés and the negative pigeonholing of Africa and its people, that has been standard in Hollywood for time immemorial. It is clear that Black Panther makers were determined to get things right.
To many Africans and black Americans Black Panther is therefore more than just Hollywood hit film. It’s a game-changer, or at least it should be – and for many reasons.
“Black Panther is more than just another blockbuster; it is a cultural moment. Wakanda could be a visualisation of that black utopia pan-Africanists have dreamed of,” wrote Steve Rose for his UK Guardian review in which he also quotes Tyree Boyd-Pates, a Los Angeles-based writer on African-American culture who says:
“Black Panther is the beautiful aesthetic climax of just that ideology. That paradigm of black people that exceeds the expectations of white civilisation, that places black people in a place similar in their minds to what they always felt they were robbed of, and connects them back to the motherland in a way no colonial effort could ever undermine.”
The movie, not only intellectually engages its viewers but puts or should put an end to all form of clichés and the negative pigeonholing of Africa and its people, that has been standard in Hollywood for time immemorial.
Black Panther is a story of T’Challa, a young African prince who takes over as King of Wakanda and the legacy that comes with it, after the death of his father.
Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four Vol. 1 Issue 52, published in 1966. For Marvel Comics fanatics, they will also note that Black Panther picks up where the Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War” left off.
Directed by 31-year old African-American Ryan Coogler, (who also co wrote the screenplay with & Joe Robert Cole) Black Panther is based on Wakanda – a fictional, extra technologically-developed African nation in the world.
Wakanda has hidden its true form, cloaked by advanced technology, protecting itself and its inhabitants, thus secluding it from the rest of the world and it is one of the few places on earth where the near-indestructible Vibranium precious metal is found. Vibranium is behind Wakanda’s outstanding technological and cultural development, reads teh the official Marvel blurb on marvel.com.
Wakanda is indeed so ahead of its time, and the portrayal of almost everything in it, is revolutionary. Even the Panther motorbikes fly.
But what also separates Wakanda from other places in the Marvel Universe is the fact that while it’s the most technically-advanced civilisation in the world, Wakanda still has a strong history of culture as its foundation, writes Jenn Fujikawa on marvel.com.
“What we were very afraid of was making Wakanda almost too Kirby-esque and by that I mean making it feel almost like they’re alien and not human. The truth is they’re human. They’re just 20 or 25 years ahead of us. Having a city built on Vibranium allows them to have all these advances and have wealth beyond our wildest imaginings and that’s a big part of the movie,” Black Panther producer Nate Moore tells Fujikawa.
He adds: “So imagine a place that still has standing monuments that are centuries old, next to the most modern skyscrapers in the world. In the same way, they haven’t lost a lot of their cultural touchstones that other places have…They still have rituals that are centuries old because they never had that sort of cultural imperialism that you’ve seen across the world. So it’s a place that really sits between being technologically advanced but also having a high value on their traditions.”
“Black Panther is more than just another blockbuster; it is a cultural moment. Wakanda could be a visualisation of that black utopia pan-Africanists have dreamed of.
For concept ideas, Hannah Beachler, production designer was looking to the future, specifically contemporary architects who had designed in Africa and she was inspired by avant-garde architect, the Zaha Hadid, according to Fujikawa.
“I started poking around and looking at really modern architects who have designed in Africa, all over Africa, east and west Africa. And someone who I really fell in love with was Zaha Hadid… Her architecture is very voluptuous and very flowing, very organic. And the more I started digging into Senegal and Nigeria and finding things, while not necessarily futuristic-looking, very modern in their sensibilities as far as the way they’re putting together their elements and the colors that they use, I was struck by that. I think in Kenya, Uganda—Johannesburg was another one—where no matter where you go, you really do see that they’re always keeping in mind the tradition,” Beachler tells Fujikawa adding:
“It was important for us to keep that tradition, because we wanted to honor and have reverence for the continent and bring it to the screen in a way that you haven’t seen before, as being a prosperous place.”
Enter Ruth Carter and the Wakandan Costumes
As many have now noted, diehard revelers of this movie have truly connected with its costume design and are not turning up to theatres in jeans and trainers, but garbed in attires inspired by Wakanda or/and African clothing. And indeed if there is one other outstanding offering from the Black Panther movie, is its astonishing costume design.
And the person who led that onerous task was African-American designer Ruth Carter, who has worked on movies such Malcom X, Amistad, Marshall and Roots.
With the world of Wakanda rooted in African tradition, the costuming worked in tandem with production designer Hannah Bleacher’s elaborate set design. Carter made sure the colour palette complimented the landscapes and the elaborate tribal garb of Wakanda’s tribes, and the distinct colour palettes reflected appropriate African customs along with Wakanda’s mysterious futuristic technology, says Fujikawa adding:
“Inspired by not one, but many different places in Africa, Carter melded the cultural aesthetics together to create a cohesive look that felt distinctly Wakandan.”
Carter drew inspiration from different African cultures and aesthetics – from Cape to Cairo, so to speak.
She tells Fujikawa: “When I began my research, I realised we could create from a place of fantasy, a place of African culture and a place of imagination…trying to create a culture and pride that feels authentic…”
On creating the stunning Dora Milaje designs Carter says: “We wanted to make them have more of a presence.”
When I began my research, I realised we could create from a place of fantasy, a place of African culture and a place of imagination…trying to create a culture and pride that feels authentic
Another highlight of the costumes are the Kimoyo Beads worn on the wrists the Wakandans. They are not just beads, but very advanced health, knowledge, and communication devices built with technology, which only works in Wakanda Kingdom.
And another reason why many black people are celebrating this movie is that it’s a break from the perennially whitewashed Hollywood castings. As everyone will know by now, the Black Panther cast is largely black with some of the most talented black actors and actresses – American and African. That roll call includes: T’Challa – (Black Panther) the new King of Wakanda, played by Chadwick Boseman while regal Angela Bassett is Ramonda the Queen, T’Challa’s mother. Shuri – T’Challa’s genius younger sister who heads Wakanda’s Design Group is played by Letitia Wright; Michael B. Jordan, plays the villain Erik Killmonger, while Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje is played by Danai Gurira; Nakia played by Lupita Nyong’o, is T’Challa’s love interest but is the covert agent for the Dora Milaje.
M’Baku the leader of the Jabari tribe who shuns the of Vibranium is ably played Winston Duke. New-talented-kid-on-the-block, Oscar nominee of Ugandan decent, Danile Kaluuya plays W’Kabi the head the Border Tribe which keeps non-Wakandans trying to enter the Kingdom at bay.Then there is Zuri, the spiritual leader and T’Challa’s advisor played by Forest Whitaker.
Black Panther may be based on fiction, and reactions to it are mixed. But by and large, there is one common thread, Africans are pleased that for once Hollywood is celebrating Africa’s greatness than its weaknesses. More of the same is now a popular refrain.