There are going to be a million think-pieces on Black Panther – negative and many, many positive. I am going to throw mine in the ring anyways. If you have something to say, there is no reason to be silent, just because other people are also speaking. I am not a cinema-going person. My visit to the cinema to watch Black Panther marked the end of a 5-year drought of cinema non-going and will probably mark the beginning of another 5 year hiatus. I am going to be discussing themes from the movie here. So if you have not watched it. Go and watch it and come back. Because here be spoilers….
SPOILERS O! SPOILERS O! SPOILERS O! SPOILERS O!
Black Panther is important in so many ways and has so many layers, that it will definitely inform the cinematic landscape for years to come. There is theory in it. There is history. There is deeeep emotion. For a superhero movie to do that… that is significant. And it is not so much due to the genre, but the depth of thought the writers put into the script and the heart the actors put into their craft. Black Panther takes an unhealed wound and displays its facets to the world… without apology.
A few words on my positionality: I was privileged to be born in Africa. I am also a member of the African diaspora. In another post, I explain how returning to Africa helped to define my Africanness. I have always seen myself in the context of African history. From the beginning of the slave trade, the history of Africa has been a history of invasion and dispossession. A history of being seen as the ultimate ‘other’, the ultimate opposition to normality. I was 8 years when I read Roots for the 1st time. 9 when I watched the original TV version. 6 when I watched Gandhi, which begins with him opposing apartheid in South Africa. I was one of a few people to study African history in secondary school, took it as an option at University in Ile-Ife. West African history was a whole chapter in my doctoral thesis. I am an intersectional feminist, steeped in postcolonial theory, suffused in African history, a poet fluent in her writers. I am anti-racist and anti-colonial. I am Africa. (You can read a more general note about me here)
But enough about me. Let us talk about the metaphors of Black Panther.
Wakanda: Wakanda is the past and the possible and the lost future of Africa. Wakanda is the Africa that left its children behind. Wakanda is not a fantasy. I repeat: Wakanda. Is. Not. A. Fantasy. Wakanda replaces all that was stolen. All that was thrown away. All that was lost. Like a jigsaw puzzle completed in bold and vivid colours by an abstract artist, Wakanda is an imagining and reassembling of Africa’s lost pieces and a making of her whole again. So no, Wakanda is not a fantasy. To paraphrase a post-colonial theorist: Wakanda can be ‘perceived as confirmation, gage, and relaunch of an ongoing promise, a “not yet,” a “what is coming,” which — always — separates hope from Utopia’ [Mbembe, Achille. On the postcolony. Vol. 41. Univ of California Press, 2001: 206]
This is probably why I left the cinema mourning. I have always mourned Africa. Since I began to learn my history, I mourned. How can you not mourn when you know that 20 million of Africa’s children were stolen? So many died in the Middle Passage. So many thrown overboard. Some chose to jump. So, I have always mourned. But now I am mourning in 3D. Mourning what has been lost. What has been stolen. The broken bodies that will never be healed. The hurt souls that will die never knowing peace. Those who were born into war. Covered in blood. Because make no mistake, Africa is caught up in a war. That is what this is. An armed conflict is defined by the number of its casualties. Count the bodies as they pile up. Count. The. Bodies. They are still piling up. Africa is a warzone. Self-inflicted and self-imploding? Yes. But always suffering external invasion since we were discovered, with our gold regalia, diamonds under our feet, floating over a lake of crude oil, scratching uranium from our soil. Just call it a war. Call us plunder. And so I mourn Wakanda. I mourn what is not, what was made not possible by incursion. Because Wakanda is not a fantasy. It is the imagination of non-invasion. It is the imagination of African peace. It is the imagination of true African freedom.
Eric Kilmonger (N’Jadaka): Eric Kilmonger touched my heart. Broke my heart. I cried when he died. Wakanda left him behind. Eric Kilmonger basically plays two roles in Black Panther. Serves dual purposes. In his personal capacity – the hurt child seeking to heal his pain with fire and blood. Burn them all! Burn everything down! That is centuries of hurt weaponized. As a representative, a cipher for the Diaspora – he is the schism. A child of the Middle Passage. He is the betrayed. He is the left behind. He was born into the void. The scatterling of Africa. A result of the division of the African soul. Born of the splitting of what was once whole into two halves. The child at the heart of the catastrophe of incursion. From thenceforth Africa became, not longer one but two. No longer one united Africa, but Africa and her Diaspora; The other and her other. In constant opposition. But always connected. By blood.
Eric is the lost child that only wants to come home, but does not know how. Only wants to see the promised sunset. Feel the dust that houses his ancestors beneath his feet. Feel in the wind on his skin the breath of those whom he is connected to by blood. Heal the self-inflicted hurt on his flesh. Get rid of the unseen chains that bind him. But how can he speak peace and liberation when he was born of war and dispossession? He was born into the schism. Into the rift. Yet, without him Wakanda will never be whole again. Never be complete without the left behind. Africa and her diaspora. What if T’Challa and Eric could unite? What if this great rift, this yawning divide could be healed? What if black liberation could be achieved, not in an avalanche of blood but by restoring the historical bonds of black togetherness? Ubuntu. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – A person is a person because of people. We are ujamaa. We are one African family. Together, we are Ọmọlúàbí. People bettered by community to build a better African community. Umunna bu ike, together we have power. Together we are Africa. Together we are free.
Eric chose death and not bondage. And I wept in the dark cinema. I wept because his personal story ended, but not the stories of those he represented. I wept for the courage of those who jumped. I wept that it was necessary to do so. I wept for what they were jumping towards. Freedom. In those seconds between slipping their bonds and the waters closing over their heads, they were free. And for them freedom was better than what lay ahead. Freedom is this indiscernible phantasm that we yearn for. Let us yearn together. Let us act together. Let us become free together.
The Dora Milaje: I have written about African women a lot, see here and here. I have written time and time again about how unsubstantiated and ahistorical stereotypes of the feeble Black African Woman pervade our senses. How all these have birthed misogynoir – the objectification and hypersexualisation of black women. The reduction of black and African women to their sexual function only. The fetishization of black female bodies. And the unrelenting violence visited on those bodies. All the religo-socio-cultural justifications are ahistorical and counter-evidentiary. The Dora Milaje take those tropes and trample them under their warrior heels, tear them apart with their vibranium spears. Their depiction of African womanhood is more true to reality than the tropes we are burdened with. So again, Wakanda is not a fantasy. The Dora Milaje are based on verifiable history. The Fon N’Nonmiton (Mino) of Dahomey, are the only documented frontline female troops in modern warfare history. Swift decapitation was their trademark. Queen Amina of Zaria was a warrior Queen heading up an army of 20,000 men. According to the Kano Chronicle, Amina conquered as far as Nupe and Kwarafa, ruling for 34 years. Ȩfúnşetán Aníwúrà of the Yoruba Empire had personal military training in urban and guerrilla warfare. And Moremi Ajasoro was an undercover agent in the 12th century – basically Nakia.
A Few Other Quick Points
- I am well aware that Marvel profits the most, financially, from this movie. Many people like me, who are not habitual movie-goers have gone to see this ground-breaking work, because it has a black cast. But, the big bucks will go to the studio. Nevertheless, I think the positive vibes and food for thought coming out of the writers’ pens and the actors’ actions cannot be valued in monetary terms. This is a beginning. This is a becoming. As Paul Simon & Miriam Makeba sing in Under African Skies:
And there is no telling what that remembering, and that powerful love can do.
- There is a lot being said about how Eric Kilmonger was demonised in the movie, despite the fact that all he and his father were seeking was black liberation. Example. Though it is a superhero movie, I do not necessarily see T’Challa as the hero of the movie. I think the movie is multilayered and multifaceted and complex, and it would be facile to split the characters into saints and sinners. Heroes and Villains. Those who die as losers, those who survive as winners. I think we also need to acknowledge the fact that Black Panther is not a perfect movie, but a political tale trapped by the norms of superhero story-telling. Riding the vehicle of capitalist entertainment. I see the movie as the cinematic depiction of many converging thoughts on Black Liberation and the telling of how divergent histories are brought to liberation as a concept and a hopeful eventuality. Neither T’Challa’s nor Eric’s approach is perfect or completely reprehensible. Both T’Challa and Eric are imprisoned, but they inhabit different prisons.
- I was not sold on the necessity of Agent Ross. ‘How much vibranium are you hiding?’ Really???!!! Hiding? Hiding? On my own land!!! No be ya own o. Dey your lane.
- The people who imagined Sambisa Forest have never been to the North of Nigeria. I am a Northern Nigerian.
- The music: I wanted more highlife, more afrobeats, more African choirs, more African melodies, more African joy. Music is so evocative. African music would have added such a layer to the movie that would have deepened the feelings and lived on after the euphoria, been a handle, a message, the heart and soul of a movement.
- PS: What is wrong with W’Kabi? OK so T’Challa didn’t kill Klaue, but then abere e sonu o lo gbe sango, tani omo pe epe ti poju ohun tosonu lo? If you lose a needle and request the help of the thunder god to look for it, we all know that you wanted to go and call thunder down on your enemies anyways. I wanted Okoye to split him in two where he stood. Him and his Ankara Soso shield.
- How can I write this without mentioning M’Baku? Apart from Eric, I loved M’Baku the most. (I mean I absolutely, absolutely loved Winston Duke as Dominic in Person of Interest so, this is not surprising.) On seeing his mountain I nearly sang out in the cinema ‘And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas!’ M’Baku owned the screen every time he was on it. Funny, passionate, sarcastic, full of life (We are vegetarians…Are you done? ABBL). He should get his own movie, basically. I will go back to the cinema for that. Go M’Baku!!!