Earlier this week I went to see the Black Panther movie. Some of you may know that I despise comicbook based movies. Just going from the trailers they seem very generic, derivative and not very deep; I like science-fiction but there should be an element of intelligence in the story or plot. However, I do like Africa. My house has got plenty of African statues and pieces of art. I’ve been there three times, I have watched African and African set TV shows and films from an early age. I also studied it’s history and politics at university amongst many Africans from all walks of life.
The hype said that Black Panther was going to be revolutionary and so with nothing better showing on Monday morning, that’s what I went to see.
T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the king of Wakanda which is an El-Dorado or Shangri-La. A magical, powerful land in Africa, hidden to the world by impenetrable jungle and some hi-tech shielding. Part of the role of being the King is that the individual also gets to wear a black super-heroes outfit which turn them into Black Panther! Other characters in the film include Michael B. Jordan who plays the villainous Erik Killmonger and he, quite frankly, steals the show from Boseman’s rather stilted, if regal performance. Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s very own “Q,” Shuri is also wonderful.
The plot is rather stagy but at times effective. After the murder of his father, T’Challa comes back home to Wakanda to become king. At the ceremony, he is challenged by Jabari Tribe leader M’Baku, and what ensues is a quite exciting combat sequence between the two, which ultimately has T’Challa prevailing and keeping the throne. Enter Killmonger, now an ex American black ops soldier hellbent on dethroning the king to ship Wakandan weapons, filled with Vibranium, to black operatives all around the world.
Vibranium is what allowed Wakanda to become the place it is today when aeons ago a meteor crashed into this part of Africa containing a mountain full of Vibranium, the strongest substance in the world. Killmonger follows his goal which is for black people to fight and take control with the use of Wakandian firepower and using agents in New York, London, Hong Kong and elsewhere, lead black people across the planet out of oppression.
The eventual ritual combat for the throne between T’Challa and Killmonger leads to the former’s ousting and a new king being reigned into power. Thinking T’Challa is dead, Killmonger proceeds with his plans for a new world order. However he doesn’t get very far before a climatic battle, where a down and out T’Challa has to overcome a hellbent arch nemesis, a showdown that leads to final words in a rather Shakespearian death scene and the revelation that we are all ‘One Tribe’.
Before getting to the alleged politics of the film, let’s take a bit of a look at Wakanda and this Afrofuturistic vision. Wakanda is hidden behind clouds and mountains, far from the evils of white colonisers. It’s hinted in the trailer that we will get to see some fantastic natural African sights of vast Savanna scenes and landscapes that couldn’t be anywhere else on earth. Instead though, we largely are confined to a rather generic and not particularly futuristic looking city. It seemed a bit of a lost opportunity and not particularly rounded and real though there are the odd exceptional city scene or futuristic shot in the mountain mining complex.
I guess this is part of the problem with it being a Marvel film. One day it might be New York, the next London or Hong Kong or Dubai but really it is all the same as is the case here.
If the men are at the centre of the film’s plot, the women in “Black Panther” are the actual highlights. There’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s widowed mother, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the one that got away for T’Challa, but most impressively Danai Gurira (best known to many from The Walking Dead) as Okoye, leader of the all-female Wakandan army. Every time she’s onscreen she lights it up. With her head shaven, and a muscular physique, Okoye is the heart and soul of Black Panther.
A big problem with “Black Panther” is that there simply isn’t all that much excitement to go around. Almost everything you expect to happen happens. There isn’t anything memorable, no moment that sends your pulse pounding, your spine tingling. This is a straightforward telling of a story that on paper should not be straightforward at all or, at the very least, safe.
A minority of people don’t seem to like the film as it is a film with almost entirely a black cast but that doesn’t bother me one bit. That being said, I don’t understand the need these days that people need heroes that look like them to aspire to. Growing up, my favourite TV show was Star Trek and I loved Mr. Spock. I still haven’t met a real life Vulcan but that’s ok as I relate to him despite my lack of pointed ears and him being an alien and all. Growing up I repeatedly watched the miniseries Shaka Zulu, a largely true-life tale of one of the towering figures of 19th Century black Africa and I hadn’t ever met a black person in real life when watching it.
For a film so supposedly revolutionary then I was actually disappointed. Unless one is shocked by a film almost entirely featuring black people (which makes sense for most of Africa) then where is the revolution? If it is for black people in the USA then why not just make a super-hero film with largely a black cast in America which is where it seems it should have been set. I can’t really see how a character in a fictional African country has that much of a real-life similarity with a black boy in Los Angeles or Paris. It’s sad if people need someone to look like them to identify with them. Come to think of it why can’t Superman be black? Dr Who is now a lady. I’d rather watch a show about an interesting green walking-talking Grasshopper than watch any old film just because it has a white leading actor or cast.
I’d hoped for a more authentic African experience. Why have so many American and British actors in it with a slightly generic African accent? Why not have an entirely African cast…. heaven forbid speaking something other than English. Forest Whittaker is a great actor but he isn’t really any more African than I am except for the superficial skin colour and that shouldn’t be a factor. Whilst I’m at it, why have a white English actor play an American FBI agent. Why must the only other second tier baddie in the film be portrayed by another British actor as a stereo-typically villanous South African? Why not have a real Afrikaans actor who maybe even an actor from the Maghreb who might be African but have an Arab appearance? Or one of the many Asians from Eastern and Southern Africa.
Though I appreciated some of the mixes between African culture and a futuristic setting, a lot of things seemed to be very generically African. You have people wearing clothing from all over Africa rather than any one or just from Wakanda. For example the beautiful colourful blankets from Southern Africa alongside a gentleman wearing a lip plate which is from an entirely different part of this vast continent. It’s all a bit superficial and Hollywood but if that is what is seen as revolutionary then so be it. They can’t usually get Britain right so maybe it’s expecting to much for them to give Africa more than a token gesture.
Maybe I am otherthinking things but it’s also very generic and in this case just wrong to have a white American casually dismissed as a coloniser. Maybe that is why they couldn’t have a black FBI agent? I know they have them in real life. Also mention is made of there being Wakanda agents in major Western cities that would be in place if needed. If this film is to inspire black people, does it mean that white people should fear black people in New York and London for example or even expel them. Black people whose only home is in these cities and likely been to Africa no more than I have, if at all? As if they are ISIS agents just waiting to strike terror across the world. It doesn’t seem well-thought out, especially in this time when the media like to scare people into Islamic terror threats.
I’d rather watch more realistic African films or even African genres. Why not a police film in Addis Ababa? A student from Timbuktu who against all the odds gets accepted into a Madrassa. A small time family drama about a fisherman and his family in Angola with entirely local casts. That would be my idea of revolutionary.
The film concludes with the “We are all one tribe”, I for one kind of went into the cinema with that taken for granted just as I would have 40 years ago.
If you just want to see what I’d call a brain-dead action film you might like it. If your sole criteria is to see a film with a black cast (there are countless thousands of others if you look) then this does the trick. But my rating is 4/10 The all black cast were fantastic but everything else… not so much. Comic book films are so not for me 🙂