MESSAGE FROM WAKANDA: review of Ryan Coogler’s film BLACK PANTHER (2018)
African -American director Ryan Coogler’s film “Black Panther”, following his extension and reinterpretation of the Rocky saga with his film “Creed” (also starring his go-to actor Michael B Jordan) quickly became the must-see film of the year for Black audiences. Ostensibly, an addition to the films of the Avengers Marvell Comic Book superheroes currently in vogue, the film is actually so much more: creating a Black superhero (the Black Panther) who is not the usual superhero-outsider, the alter-ego of someone basically quite ordinary, but is in fact the king of an fictional African kingdom (Wakanda) which has hidden its true, ultra-advanced technological nature. Behind the appearance of a poor rural African country, lies the ultra-developed reality affording rich cultural and social lives of its people, masked from the rest of the world in line with its policy of isolationism, and its extreme distaste for the history of colonialism which destroyed the social and political systems of African people, and their sense of and pride in their human identities. King T’Challa, the Black Panther is a King who embodies the majesty of Black people, which is what the film is at pains to give expression to and represent. The current situation in which the humanity of Africans and African Americans appears to be being denied fuels the intense political debate and core conflict at the heart of the film, which is whether Wakanda should lead a global struggle for black liberation, or put its faith in humanity and share its advanced technology for the betterment of the human race.
Visually, whilst a combination of a number of different styles and elements, the capital of Wakanda is an extremely futuristic gorgeous booming and bustling metropolis, poles apart from the extremely negative depiction of an African city that we find in other films, most notably Neil Blomkamp’s dystopian alternate-future Johannesburg in “District 9” (2009). The cityscape we are presented with is a “what if” not just for Africa, but for every world city that did not develop through a planned, human-centered process, but through a process of crazy demographic expansion and accretion caused by the various phases of the industrialization process.
This dark and painful history of the peoples of Africa, particularly with the inhuman practice of slavery (of which the great historical culprits were the British and the Portuguese) created the African diaspora and the African American identity and its struggles as a minority in a white America which is starting to express its racism and racial violence in a way that it has not since the days of the civil rights’ campaign back in the 1960s, and the days of the original Black Panther movement of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. These original Black Panthers, the inspiration for the original comic book narrative, threatened to use defensive violence to challenge the racial oppression of African Americans — a movement which began in the City of Oakland, the very place where, after a brief piece of animated back-history to frame the film’s narrative, the actual story of the film begins, with a moment of confrontation between the then ruling Panther (T’Chaka) and his brother (N’Jobu) over the issue of defensive violence in order to protect Black people, which leads to an act of fratricide and a thirst for birthright and revenge.
Wakanda, the richly-depicted ideal African kingdom of the film is a reflection of the United States itself (as a supposed multicultural “World” society) but it also a direct, antithetical comment on its failures as it heads, under President Trump into a new me-first selfish, racially exclusive isolationism. It’s very existence (hidden in plain view) is a powerful assertion that Black Lives Matter, and that the historical contribution of Black people to the World should not be overlooked, and that Black culture (whether African or African American) has so much to teach the world. To convey this sense of deep cultural roots and meanings, and to give a powerful image of African possibility, Coogler moved away from the subdued, naturalistic colour palette and style of the other Marvell Avengers films and go for a very wide saturated colour palette, strong special effects, and strong dramatic character presence in order to present a world that feels vibrant, powerful and larger-than-life. This world of plenitude and presence, will however be almost destroyed when it has to face the conflict it had tried to run away from when Eric “Killmonger” Stevens the son of the murdered brother of the king (the father of the current Black Panther) returns to claim his birthright, and defeats his cousin in the ritual combat through which the Panther (as a warrior-king) is required to maintain his right to rule. With two exceptions, the cast was composed of actors who were African-Americans (most notably Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, King T’Challa), Africans ( Zimbabwean/American Danai Gurira as Okoyec, head of the King’s female guard, the Dora Milaje and Academy -award winner, the Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, playing T’Challa’s former lover and Wakandan multi-lingual spy, Nakia) as well as Black British actors (like Letitia Wright, who plays T’Challa’s younger sister and technological/scienfiic genius Sheri) These actors studied hard in order to steep themselves in things African and African American (reading and learning African languages and studying the speech and or speeches of figures as varied as Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur, as well as undergoing training in a variety of martial arts styles including South African stick fighting) in order to give them a sense of rooted African identity, being African as a kind of stately presence, as well as providing Wakanda with an eclectically (yet essentially) African feel representing, as far as possible, the entire continent. On the negative side Wakanda is feudal and patriarchal — Coogler on the one hand seems to exult in it representing a male-centred utopia, and yet on the other hand realizes, the danger of male aggressive violence and need for power, particularly in the characterization of the villains of the piece (Eric Stevens/Killmonger — the latter the name given to him to reflect his lethal skills as a US black ops soldier– and Ulysses Klaue — played by motion-capture acting genius Andy Serkis, complete with a South African accent straight from the Southern suburbs of Johannesburg). Having built up a sense of the rightness of male authority and power — embodied in the political figure of the King — the film then undercuts this powerful affirmation of male presence , suggesting that an overweening sense of masculinity is the problem — and as the female figures in the film combine to defeat the villain, newly-installed as Wakandan king — that a feminine softening of the masculine aggressive stance is the way to go (replacing an act of fratricide and African exclusivity with a outward-looking commitment to universal brotherhood at the end of the film). Of course, if colonialism altered forever the political and social landscape of Africa forever, it was also the resistance to colonialism that deepened Africa’s detachment from the old, mythologically-sanctioned feudal order that we see represented in Wakanda (through African-American eyes). Wakanda is a utopia, but it a society where regal bloodline is all important. Wakanda’s escaping the nightmare of colonialism means that it also avoided the kind of political transformations produced by anti-colonial struggle, where a traditional faith in the collectives became wedded to political ideas of a left-wing (Marxist and/or socialist) orientation. Wakanda may be a rich embodiment of African culture, but it is surprisingly removed from the reality of today’s African social issues and its politics.
Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o (the altruistic “heart” of the film) and Danai Gurira give very impressive performances, but the film essentially belongs to Michael B Jordan, Coogler’s “main man”, who gives a riveting performance as the villain providing us with a sense of a man tragically driven to his own destruction by bitter feelings of deprival and displacement, which are grounded in his appreciation of the history of suffering inflicted on people of African origin and descent by white colonialists and slavery. Though the role Jordan has in this film seems light-years away from that he played in Coogler’s previous film “Creed” in fact there is an interesting similarity — in both films the characters he plays are desperate to belong, desperate to be recognized and to be accepted. In “Creed” Apollo Creed’s illegimate son Adonis Creed (Jordan) seeks out his father’s former rival and friend, Rocky Balboa, looking to be trained asa boxer, but also to find out what he can about his lost father, and perhaps looking for a surrogate father to guide him through his already troubled life.
To close, two last comments on the film: firstly the advanced technology of Wakanda is entirely grounded in their greatest natural resource (which is of extraterrestrial origin), the power metal called “vibranium”. The operation of this metal (which makes Wakanda secretly a military superpower) extends to healing, to transport and to advanced forms of communication. The technology grounded in vibranium appears magical, its interface with its human users is seamless — but it is a technology that enriches the people and which dovetails with and embellishes the culture of Wakanda (with the exception of the Jubari tribe who eschew its use completely). As such, it is an “alchemical” form of technology, and its existence provides an implicitly negative comment on our current dirty, hazardous, even diabolically dangerous technologies which are either fossil or nuclear fuel based, and whose role is anything but preservative or ecologically sound. Second,and lastly, Black Panther is a film that uses the cultural richness of the Black experience to present an alternate image to the World and to human beings currently making such a mess of it and of their relationships with each other. As the film makes abundantly clear: Africa is no “dark” place, it has a deep and essential connection with humanity and the history of our species. It is, as we are reminded by one of the Wakandans at one point, the place where humanity began. In this sense, it seems quite natural to see Coogler’s film as close in spirit to Beyonce’s magnificent 2016 project, Lemonade: a multi-media creation involving powerful music integrated with a spectacularly impressive hour long film/collection of music videos, in which she explores Black history, her own Black female identity (using the poetry of Warsan Shire as an exquisite counterpoint), and provides some trenchant critique into the mental/ideological state of White America and implicitly suggests a way out of the trap that it has found itself in. There is a new cultural confidence in African America, and as with Lemonade, and with the powerful socially-challenging hip hop of singer Kendrick Lemar (whose songs are used in the film’s score), Coogler’s Black Panther is an assured and powerful expression of this.