Black Panther is a technicolour world, constructed by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, to the cast who are, to borrow from an popular black hair product line, ‘Dark [skinned] and Lovely’, the film’s politics are woven into its very fabric paralleling the Wakandan’s depositing of vibranium into their clothes. Over the course of 135 minutes, both subtly and boldly, the film’s co-writers, Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, pull at the threads of colonialism that underpin global hierarchies. Whilst they are never wholly toppled, and perhaps never could be in blockbuster with a budget of $200 million that is itself implicated in such hierarchies, these moments destabilise their foundations. The Gryphon explores the importance of Black Panther and how it celebrates the diversity of black culture and the power it has to influence.
When cinemas globally fill with laughter at Shuri calling white, C.I.A agent Everett Ross ‘coloniser’, the laughter it invites is powerful. Unlike Elon Musk and his SpaceX company who hope to land humans on Mars in the not too distant future, Shuri has no interest in using her technological genius to colonise foreign lands. Wakanda’s most talented inventor is not pale, male (and stale) like James Bonds’ Q, instead she’s a sixteen-year-old girl who cites memes and whose sleek white outfits only further highlight her brilliant blackness.
“both subtly and boldly, the film’s co-writers, Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, pull at the threads of colonialism that underpin global hierarchies”
Shuri’s zinging lines, often revolving around white men, expose the historic truths and persistent patterns of power that haunt us today. Wakanda may not exist but it is still potent as a what if? Wakanda’s fictional present represents what the African continent may have looked like before its people were stolen, its lands sliced up at Berlin Conference, resources plundered and it was saddled with debt. It’s a country that exists outside of colonial time but not without an awareness of its devastating effects and the danger of visibility. To be seen can make you feel vulnerable, and if you are ‘black’ in the West, the spectre of hyper-visibility can leave you feeling drained.
Wakanda hides so it isn’t pillaged like the countries that surround it have been. Killmonger’s pointed questions in the provocatively named “Museum of Great Britain” are spoken not just to the white, female curator with a plummy accent, which may also describe the majority in university art history courses, but to the world. Our Great British Museums are stuffed with artefacts that were stolen or unfairly traded. Her stupefied response to his rhetorical questions of “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?” is as powerful as the edge of the artefact he steals and the fact that she is ignorant to the item’s history despite her being the ‘expert’. Wakandan artefacts may be fictional but there are ‘Great’ British Museums stuffed with African artefacts, such as the Benin bronze heads, that were plundered or unfairly traded and now sit on shelves that seek to dislocate them from their bloody past.
“to resist dominant confining models of blackness that are often rooted in trauma. The film’s showcasing of black culture in all its diverse forms has inspired black people globally to don their traditional clothes in their own refusal to assimilate”
The refusal to assimilate is one of the most powerful ways in which the film shows its revolutionary bent. Although crafting a fictional world the production designer, Hannah Beachler, drew on real African places and people. The things you see in the film have roots on the continent and provide routes into it. When the camera sweeps into its streets, Wakanda’s urban landscape thrums like Lagos. The blanket Daniel Kaluuya’s W’kabi is ensconced in for much of the film is a Basotho blanket. T’Challa speaks to his father in Xhosa and the viewer is reminded of our Otherness as it is subtitled. In all of these little ways the film attests to the importance and value of black creativity in all of its endless expressions. Even Killmonger, who was raised in the US, seeks to circumvent Western rules and rulers, in his own way, by toppling white supremacy that wreaks havoc of communities of colour globally. The film may allow a C.I.A agent to end this plan but it still gives the space for different iterations of blackness and their revolutionary power. The film holds all these moments of liberation together at once ricocheting off one another to resist dominant confining models of blackness that are often rooted in trauma. The film’s showcasing of black culture in all its diverse forms has inspired black people globally to don their traditional clothes in their own refusal to assimilate. Seeing characters being black and proud is inviting viewers to be black and proud themselves.
Whilst representation matters so does cold, hard cash. The film’s $169 million opening weekend box office demonstrates that black-helmed stories matterand make money. As much as the film is steeped in imagining an alternate African present outside of the numerous horrors that have visited the diaspora, we live in what academic bell hooks terms the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”. That the film smashed through records and eventually became the fifth largest opening weekend in the US ever, taking $169 million, really means something. Recent successes such as Girl’s Trip, Moonlight and Black Panther are making it harder and harder to argue that projects helmed by black directors and populated by black casts do not and will not make money. However, that box-office money is still largely lining the pockets of white-owned corporations and pales in comparison to the £20 million (over £2 billion adjusted for inflation) the British government pledged to reimburse slaveowners for the abolition of slavery.
Gill Scott-Heron ends his poem ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (1970) with the following pronouncement: “The revolution will not televised […] The revolution will be live”. Maybe the revolution comes via the voter registration being done by the movement for Black Lives Matter at screenings across the US. Or maybe it will arrive from revolutionaries inspired by watching Black Panther and seeing people who look like them fifty feet high unapologetically black, loving each other and shushing white men.
[Image: comicbook.com, inhdw.com]