“Shuri: Don’t scare me like that, coloniser! M’Baku: If you say one more word, I’ll feed you to my children!
(Ross shuts up, beat) M’Baku: I’m kidding. We’re vegetarians.”
THE DIALOGUE in the movie Black Panther is only one of the indications of its delicious irreverence. Everything from the costumes to the plot and intermingling of fascinating characters keeps you engaged and, more importantly, thinking.
It is certainly not what is expected from a film based on a comic book tradition which, admittedly, goes back decades. Behind the obviously large budget for set, actors and special effects lies a strong story, flavoured with socio-political questioning.
And of course there is the fact that the majority of the main actors are of African heritage, whether from the continent or diaspora. The latter includes our own Winston Duke from Tobago in the key role of M’Baku. It is no longer possible to pretend that colour does not matter, that it is just about good screenplays, actors and directors. The #OscarsSoWhite furore of 2016 highlighted the absence of people of colour either being considered for awards, behind the camera or at the board level. “Researchers found that studio heads thought black directors were suited to comedies or dramas featuring black casts, not tent-pole blockbusters. They associated female directors with small, independent films that didn’t make money.”
I had a boss who used to say tongue-in-cheek that he couldn’t “tap dance” very well. I always thought it was a brilliant comment on the black reality; it originated from the fact that black actors in Hollywood were historically expected to function at the level of entertainers or “mammies,” as in the 1939 Gone With the Wind.
In that film, black actress Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her supporting role as the enslaved Mammy, the first for an African American performer. Unfortunately, her win was as complicated as the times she lived in. It is said that McDaniel was subsequently typecast as a maid, while her wish to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery was refused — because of the colour of her skin.
Further, studios have been notoriously reluctant to “bank” on actors of colour. Black Panther shatters this myth as well. “Hollywood is now sizing up the staying power of Marvel’s latest superhero movie. In its second weekend … collecting about (US)$108 million and pushing its global total after only 12 days of release to roughly (US)$704 million …”
Indeed, insiders are predicting that the movie will soon cross US$1 billion in earnings, a first for any movie.
After seeing the film, I was convinced that a creative project of this nature was perhaps best positioned in 2018. The portrayal of strong women finds resonance with the #MeToo campaign which focuses on the rights of women in Hollywood and elsewhere, and the abuse of power that creates oppressive work environments.
As one writer pointed out, “Nakia is not just the love interest; she’s also a spy and humanitarian. Shuri is not just a tech whiz; she’s also a princess who loves goofing on her brother. Okoye is not just the head of the kingdom’s special forces; she’s also a woman torn between sworn duty and what her heart believes to be right.”
It may also be argued that this film is more easily accepted after riots in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East helped to change the mood of the world, as young people articulated their demands for responsible leadership.
Additionally, as younger generations force the creators and manipulators of technology to interrogate the purpose of all this innovation, how to make it safer for us all, we see the characters in the movie confronting some of these crucial questions. That is, how to ensure that technology is used to make a difference in the lives of the billions who occupy this planet, and not a privileged few?
Panther is not the first film to push past entrenched ideas of race, power, relationships or spirituality (Mississippi Masala 1991, Slumdog Millionaire 2008, Avatar 2009, The Graduate 1967). However, its characters are allowed to make statements on a global stage that previously may have been considered politically incorrect. “T’Challa: We can still heal you... Erik Killmonger: Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”
One reviewer said these words haunted him. Me? I just nodded my head and whispered – Asé.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN