Black Panther didn’t create a Cultural Wave. It just rode it to box office success
After missing several pre-release screenings for one reason or the other, I finally got to dress-up in my traditional kaftan and signature zawa millinery cap to go see…YOU KNOW WHAT I WENT TO SEE. On the artistic merits, Marvels latest superhero blockbuster — Black Panther is flawlessly executed. The script, story line, casting, character development, cinematography, special effects, acting and costumes, leave little room for debate. But then again, with a $200 million budget, that wasn’t necessarily surprising. Its cultural significance on the other hand has already been and will no doubt continue to be the subject of vigorous debate and numerous think pieces. This piece is more of a cultural commentary on the movie, it’s public reception and media coverage, particularly the narrative about its significance in the perception of Africans and African Americans going forward, and what the fictional utopia Wakanda represents and how we can realize it.
Much has been said about the groundbreaking nature of an all black cast in a major superhero movie, about the importance of young black boys and girls seeing themselves portrayed on the big screen as superheroes instead of slaves and criminals. But also the importance of their white counterparts seeing that portrayal. Director Ryan Coogler, the cast, and Marvel Studios are being lauded for their audaciousness in taking this risk and delivering this culture-shifting moment that is in essence an African superhero blockbuster. While I applaud the effort, we diverge on the idea that they created this moment of African Pride, of introspection about the tense relationship between Africans and African American and their shared heritage. No! They simply tapped into it. You see for years and intensifying recently, diaspora Africans like United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri, NBA hall of famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, UBER Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John, Authors Luvvie Ajayi, Chimamanda Ngozi- Adichie, Actors like Insecures Yvonne Orji, Academy Award Winning Actress and Black Panther star — Lupita Nyong’o, her co-star Danai Gurira, Daily show host Trevor Noah, Dr. Bennet Omalu (who exposed the risk of concussion in the NFL), hell I’d include myself and media publications like Africa is a Country, OkayAfrica and countless others, have fearlessly and tirelessly talked about and worn their Africanness as a badge of honor, even when it wasn’t considered hip. They have explored the connections and tensions in their writing, public discourse, movies, plays, shows and online platforms. They primed the pump and created the wave that informed Marvel gamble to create the movie. Actor Will Smith in his congratulatory message to the Black Panther cast and crew, referenced something the late great Nelson Mandela said to him — With the type of fame that you have attained it is important when you encounter your fans that you reach your hand out and let them feel your flesh. You have to prove to them that you are REAL — because people cannot aspire to anything they do not believe is Real. In many ways, Black Panther as an African superhero and the fictional country of Wakanda are only believable because these real life superheroes reached out and touched their fans. Much like the election of Barack Obama was a culmination of the work of generations of politicians, advocates and even actors who consciously and subconsciously massaged public perceptions and over time made us comfortable with the idea of seeing a Black President. So yes, Marvel deserves credit for investing heavily in this movie, and Ryan Coogler and his amazing cast for doing the work justice, but let’s be clear the cultural shift that made this movie the hit that it is, has been happening way before Marvel decided to make the Black Panther.
With the type of fame that you have attained it is important when you encounter your fans that you reach your hand out and let them feel your flesh. You have to prove to them that you are REAL — because people cannot aspire to anything they do not believe is Real — Nelson Mandela to Will Smith
The second and perhaps most important take away for me was the fictional nation of Wakanda. An un-colonized African utopia, self determined, rich in a rare natural resource, which has fueled its technological advancement and success. Yet it has chosen to isolate itself from the rest of the continent and turn a blind eye to the struggles of other blacks and Africans around the world. Wakanda’s controversial foreign policy was a central theme in the movie and that debate has spilled over into the real life. Some have praised the depiction of a technologically advanced African Nation, applauding the diversity in its leadership and the fact that it didn’t accept any international aid, while remitting aid to countries in need. It checked all the boxes for the “Africa” we’d want to see, one far removed from the current portrayals in the media. Others have derided it for being isolated while the world around it was in need, a theme the movie explores in detail. The struggle is not unlike what most superpowers in the world currently have to contend with. While I hate interpreting art, I couldn’t help but wonder; maybe Wakanda isn’t a fictional place. Maybe it isn’t a place at all, but an idea. An idea that exists today. You see the super smart, technologically advanced but isolated superpower, is the remarkable group of culture-shifting Africans I’d referenced earlier. The group author Taiye Selasi refers to as Afropolitans. They exist as a tribe of their own, bound not by nationality or tribe but by their shared experiences of college, culture or struggles assimilating. They are the Ivy League educated professionals, the inventors, the C-Suite executives, the neuroscientists and surgeons, the educators, scholars, strategists, thinkers, they are the African Utopia, who have accomplished tremendous amounts of success in their given fields. They are the ones who ultimately hold the key to unlocking the Africa’s massive potential. Who can bridge the divide between Africa and the global African diaspora. But they live in silos and have isolated themselves from those who do not share their experiences; they have kept the secret sauce to themselves, utilizing it primarily for personal gain. They are Wakanda!
So as the fictional Wakanda contemplates a more active foreign policy and opening up its borders to the rest of the world, it is incumbent that the real Wakanda follows suit and engage more actively in community building and collaboration, understanding that it is their moral obligation to share their viBRAINium with the rest of the continent and the diaspora.