Thursday February 08, 2018

Black Panther puts black lives on screen: How an African superhero is turning a fantasy into reality

Black Panther has already won over the critics and broken pre-sale records in its genre.

Black Panther has already won over the critics and broken pre-sale records in its genre. (Marvel Studios)

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For black people who don't feel represented in popular culture, an African superhero is here to save the day.

Black Panther, the latest installment in the Marvel movie franchise, opens in theatres on Feb.16, but has already won over the critics and broken pre-sale records in its genre.

Eliza Anyangwe, a freelance writer and founder of the Nzinga Effect, thinks the film is an important departure in movie representations of black and African culture.

"Where the dominant narrative is one of death, destruction, disease," she said, "Where the president of probably the world's most powerful nation refers to s---hole nations, here is a film that says: this is exactly the opposite."

Black Panther centres on T'Challa, an African prince who must return to his home Wakanda to become king following the death of his father. Wakanda is hidden from the wider world — a technologically advanced African society that was never colonized.

"It has captured the imagination of people from that continent and descendants of that continent," Anyangwe said, "Who have known within themselves that they are part of a greater narrative but have failed to see that narrative represented in the popular culture."

The film's appeal to young people goes beyond its comic-book credentials, said David F. Walker, a comic book writer, author and filmmaker.

"These were young people who were raised with Barack Obama as president," he said, "And have known, to a large extent, nothing other than a black president of the United States."

"And now we're stuck with what we're stuck with."

Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa, the Black Panther, left, who faces off against his rival Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, right. (Marvel Studios)

The rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — along with intense focus on the Black Lives Matter movement ad police brutality — meant that in recent years "we saw so much hate, we saw so much racism rearing its ugly head," he said.

Black Panther is providing something that real life currently cannot.

"It gives us a sense of place in the larger human community," he said, "Which unfortunately is denied to us, most of the time, our humanity is denied to us."

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Lupita Nyong'o at the premiere of Black Panther in Hollywood on Jan. 29. The film has a predominantly black cast. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Black futures

Science fiction stories often do not feature black lives or black culture, argued Adilifu Nama, professor of African-American studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

It is "a genre that has primarily excluded black folk from the technological, the super-science, the fantasy-scape of phenomenal achievement," he said.

"Now we get to see this packaged in such a powerful and compelling way that it's capturing the imaginations of young black folk in particular."

The film also ties into the Afrofuturism movement, Anyangwe noted, because despite the advanced technology on display, T'Challa gains his strength from the wisdom of his ancestors.

Afrofuturism, sci-fi and why 'it is a radical act for Black people to imagine having a future'2:34

Big dreams on the big screen

The film's blockbuster status is also significant, Walker said, indicating that there is an appetite for films like this.

"Disney has a lock on what the world wants," he said. "They understand it, they are experts."

"They don't go in to tent-pole films like this with half-baked notions, and they're really in the business of selling dreams and fantasies to people all over the world."

It's a dream Walker has shared since childhood, but never thought would be possible.

Black Panther

Parts of the film take place in Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society hidden from the wider world. (Marvel Studios)

"When you're a black person growing up... and you're consuming pop culture," he said, "There comes a point where you become profoundly aware of the absence of people that look like you."

It spurred him to work in the industry and try to change it. Now, as a writer, he meets young fans and tells them that "no one can stop us from dreaming," or from turning those dreams into reality.

Blaxploitation and astral blackness

One infamous representation of black people on film is Blacula, a movie from the Blaxploitation genre that emerged in the early 1970s.

"This film, Black Panther, is not derivative in the same way that Blacula was," Nama said.

"Blacula is the black version of Dracula. I would argue the Black Panther is reaching beyond that type of very simplistic trope."

"What you'll see in the Panther is a form of 'astral blackness,'" he said.

"It operates on multiple levels from magic to science, to time travel, to ancient ancestors, to the present moment."

"There's a very deep, transcendent representation of blackness that does not comport to notions of... urban cool, or urban menace, or rooted exclusively in a racist past."

Connection to Africa

Walker grew up watching Tarzan movies, and said "that wasn't necessarily the Africa that I wanted to be from."

"The white guy is still Lord of the Jungle," he recalled, "And we're running around like savages."

"Part of the reason why American audiences and African-American audiences are so excited about Black Panther is that most black people in America don't have a true concept of Africa, or African roots.

"Here we have a continent that we talk about as if its a single country," he said, "Maybe at best the size of Montana or something like that."

Black Panther

The film has a cast of strong, funny, witty, sensitive female characters, in what Adilifu Nama calls "a lot of black girl magic." (Marvel Studios)

Anyangwe argued that at times, this distance shows.

"One film does not a diverse industry make," she said.

To the accustomed ear, Anyangwe said, the accents in Black Panther are confusing.

"They're not quite southern Africa, they're not quite east Africa — I'm not quite sure what's going on there."

That doesn't mean it's not a step in the right direction.

"I can totally be proud of this movie and still think: 'Actually there is something about this which is an African-American conceptualisation of Africa.

"I would like to get to the place where the African protagonist or the African villain can be far more nuanced, far more diverse."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Ines Colabrese.