Albert Einstein famously said: “Logic will get you from A to Z, but Imagination will take you everywhere.”
The destination, in this case, is the fictional African country of Wakanda, home of the latest Marvel superhero to land a standalone movie – Black Panther. But this is not like any other comic book movie you have ever seen before. Black Panther is a visual love-letter to the African diaspora. This movie takes its viewers on a journey through a mystical land that many black people around the world have only seen in their dreams. A flourishing, rich and powerful, technologically advanced African nation that never experienced slavery, colonization, political corruption, or any outside influence. This beautiful masterpiece on screen is filled with hidden messages that are fine-tuned to the black experience. With black writers, a black director, black cast, black costume designer, black production designer and black soundtrack this movie is unapologetically black. In the history of cinema, this movie is as unique as the “vibranium” (told in Marvel comics to be the strongest metal on Earth) that can only be found in Wakanda.
If you have not seen the movie yet, you might not want to read further. You have been warned.
We begin our journey in this film ironically enough with the voice of N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) acting as a GRIOT, or In African vernacular – a storyteller. “Tell me a story, Baba. About home” a young N’Jadaka (who would later be revealed to be Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan, the movie’s villain) asks his father. He tells him the origin of Wakanda. How a meteorite made of vibranium struck the continent of Africa and affected the land, plants, and animals. This event created the first Black Panther and gave him his powers. He then tells him that the leaders of the tribes of Wakanda decided to keep the country safe and free from the rest of the world by hiding in plain sight. Invisibility is an all too familiar feeling that many people of color under threat can relate to. Think: Underground Railroad.
The story continues where the events of Captain America: Civil War left off. The king of Wakanda, T’Chaka has been murdered, and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is returning home to be crowned as the new King. Before returning home, he is first on a mission with his army general Okoyé (Dania Gurira) to retrieve his ex-love Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) who is acting as an undercover agent in a group of kidnapped women. This scene is in reference to the 2014 real-life kidnapping of 276 women in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram, an extremist, Islamic terrorist organization based in northeast Nigeria. To this date 112 of the original girls are still missing. There have been global campaigns to free the girls by many celebrities and political figures. However, this has made it more difficult to free them. A Nigerian military commander based in Maiduguri commented “Boko Haram sees the Chibok girls as their trump card. We think they are keeping them with their main leadership. The day we get the Chibok girls will spell the end of Boko Haram, but I fear they will kill all the girls in mass suicide bombings in the process.” In the movie, Black Panther is able to drop from his airship into the shadow of darkness and fight off the kidnappers and free the women and child soldiers. The audience in the theatre I was in cheered but I wasn’t sure if they all caught the references.
With Nakia safely accompanying Okoye and T’Challa they head back to Wakanda. This is when we actually see what Director Ryan Coogler envisioned Wakanda to look like. T’Challa exclaims “This never gets old.” As the ship pans down, we get to see an amazing metropolis of grand scale. This was not only a vision of what Africa could be but also a glimpse into what is being labeled as Afro-futurism. Skyscrapers, bridges, highways and high-speed trains, and hovercrafts. This is home. This is what black people all over the world have always imagined. An advanced Africa. All Black. Free. Educated. No lingering effects from slavery. No colonization. No segregation. No Jim Crow. No racism. No drug wars. No industrial prison complexes. No blood diamonds. It was BEAUTIFUL. I am sure that there were a few tears shed at this moment.
The plane lands, and we see the royal court ready to crown T’Challa as the new King of Wakanda. This is also our first look at the Dora Milaje, an all-black female kings guard of specially selected warriors from the different tribes. Okoye is their leader. This moment is especially powerful and important because this is the first time that I can recall ever seeing black women being portrayed as a powerful fighting force on their own void of the leadership of a white or male savior. Their charter is not to work for the king but to protect the throne. They stand on their own. In the Blaxploitation genre of films in the 1970’s, we saw black female heroines with Tamara Dobson and Pam Grier in movies like Cleopatra Jones, Coffy & Foxy Brown. In 1984, Grace Jones appeared as Zula, a powerful warrior in Conan the Destroyer but only as a sidekick to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan. The Dora Millaje are unique in that they are void of any sexual suggestiveness, connotation or undertone. Their uniform is designed after the Maasai warriors in Kenya & Tanzania and show very little skin or curves. Their heads are shaved completely bald so that their hair is also not a distraction. The message that this sends to little black girls all over the world is that you do not have to be a sex object to make a difference.
Speaking of sending a message to little black girls, in this film we are introduced to the latest Disney (who owns Marvel) Princess – Shuri (played by Letitia Wright). Her character is a child prodigy who is the chief technologist of Wakanda. Not only is she in charge of developing the Black Panther armored suits but also the vibranium that powers the city, the infrastructure, and the medical labs. Upon being surprised by a waking Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), whom she heals from a bullet wound she shouts: “Don’t scare me like that Colonizer!”. A line that has now sparked a cultural movement and given us new slang. The idea that millions of children all over the world will see a young, black female engineer developing cool technology will have a monumental impact on what they will want for themselves and their future careers. This is another example of how special this movie is and how it can have a lasting impression for generations to come.
For the King’s coronation with an amazing waterfall as the backdrop, the five tribes of Wakanda are on full display. Ruth E Carter, the lead costume designer has said that her inspiration came from ancient and current African tribes. Oscar-nominated veteran actress Angela Bassett plays Queen Mother of Wakanda, Ramonda and she is fitted with a headdress similar to “Isicholos” worn by women in the Zulu tribes of South Africa. The River tribe elder has a distinct plate in his lip which is reminiscent of the Mursi and Surma tribes in Ethiopia. The Border tribe who appropriately enough protect Wakanda’s borders wear brightly colored Lesotho-style blankets to conceal their weapons. The Mining Tribe, who is responsible for mining the Vibranium in Wakanda emulate the red earthy clay color “otjize” that is applied to the skin and hair of the Himba people of north-western Namibia. The Merchant tribe’s inspiration was from the Tuareg sub-Saharan desert dwellers of northeast Africa. The Priests were wearing flowing robes known as Agbada. It is worn by men and women in West (Ghana, Nigeria, etc.) and northern (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) Africa. The 5th and final Tribe were the Jabari or White Gorilla Mountain Tribe. Ms. Carter explained that she was inspired by the Dogon tribe of Mali for their pieces. The Dora Millaje also wear Ndebele neck rings from Zimbabwe, and T’Challa and Agent Ross are seen wearing Egyptian Jellabiya and Ghanaian Kente Cloth. Not one detail was overlooked in this film.
Enter Erik Stephens. The first time we are introduced to Killmonger, he is in a museum in London and eyeing a weapon from Wakanda that was stolen years ago from Benin. He calls for the chief curator and asks her about the items in the case. After their brief exchange, he tells her that he is going to take one of the items off of their hands. She white-splains that the items are not for sale and then he says: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” This is in reference to the theft of many artifacts that were stolen during the British colonization of Benin in 1897. Unfortunately, Killmonger’s vision of what Wakanda could be ultimately represents a plot of world domination to which at one point he says: “The sun will never set on the Wakanda empire” which is a nod to what George Macartney wrote in 1773, following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War “of the vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained”.
He might be one of the best villains of any of the Marvel comic book movies. Any great film has to have a relatable villain. When you can sympathize with the antagonist of a movie and understand his story it creates internal conflict in the audience. Now, you look at the hero differently. You just might end up cheering for the bad guy and in this case, you WILL! Erik’s real name is N’Jadaka, and he discovers that years ago his uncle, T’Challa’s father T’Chaka killed his own brother N’Jobu while defending his uncle Zuri (played by Forest Whitaker). You see, N’Jobu was planted in Oakland in the 1990’s as a wardog/spy for Wakanda. While there he discovered the racial injustices, the people were enduring at the hands of the police and sympathized with them. He knew that if they could get some vibranium and arm themselves, they could adequately defend themselves. He plotted with one of the movies few white characters Ulysses Klaue (played by Andy Serkis) to steal Vibranium from Wakanda. After the death of N’Jobu, the King decided that protecting the secret identity of Wakanda was paramount, so they left his son N’Jadaka behind. For all of his life, he has had to live with the knowledge that his uncle killed his father who only wanted help from Wakanda to fight for the freedom of oppressed black people in the United States and around the world. He grew up, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, joined the military and racked up confirmed kills which earned him the nickname “Killmonger.”
Now, this is such an important visual representation of the internal struggle & dichotomy in the relationship between African Americans and native African people. In our present-day society, the stigma exists that Africans do not get along with African Americans and vice versa. This stems from African Americans who don’t feel connected to the continent. They were stolen, robbed of their history, names, places of origin and dropped in America and abused for centuries. Native Africans cannot relate to the struggle of African Americans because the history of the North Atlantic slave trade and the abuses of racism is not taught in African schools. In essence, you have family members, cousins in T’Challa and Erik Killmonger who are similar in physical appearance but do not know about each other because their histories were hidden from them. Erik Killmonger, like many African Americans, has justifiable rage because from his point of view and in one of his most powerful lines “The world took everything away from me. Everything I ever loved!” With the knowledge that he is a real prince of Wakanda and that he has a right to the throne, he is now coming back to challenge his cousin T’Challa to be king. Whew. It got deep. Is he the hero or the villain? A portion of the final battle for the kingdom of WAKANDA takes place literally on the tracks of an Underground Railroad! Holy Harriet Tubman! Talk about subliminal messages!
There is so much history and art imitating real life in this film. I am sure that I will continue to unpack what I have seen well into the future. If you have not seen it yet, I encourage you to go and catch it (if it is not sold out where you are). I have seen it twice, and I know that many of my friends are well into their 3rd and 4th viewing. Taking their parents, children and family members. Some have even created GoFundMe campaigns to take groups of urban underprivileged kids to screenings all over the country which I have happily donated to.
Black Panther is now the fifth-biggest comic book superhero movie ever in less than two weeks since its release. Making just over $421 million in North America and over $300million overseas (Over $700 million total). It is well on its way to being the biggest solo superhero origin story/non-sequel ever. So, what does that tell us? For years it was said that movies with black lead actors and actresses with black cultural storylines would not sell and so projects have historically been underfunded and marketed poorly. Is this the “watershed” or historic moment? Will this be the turning point that sparks change in Hollywood and embraces black stories instead of turning them away? Will we continue to see ourselves and Kings and Queens, scientists, heroes, and warriors? If this movie is any indication then I believe so. Until then all I can say is: Wakanda Forever!