Oh no, not another Black Panther think piece!
I am usually one of those people who is anti-. If it is popular, then I am against it. If the crowd walks east, I am most likely to be the salmon swimming against the current and I will walk west.
Well, I broke away from my contrary ways and went to see Black Panther. This is a long piece today so settle in, get a warm drink and a bite to eat. There is too much for me to discuss, analyse and understand – I can only do it by writing a non-specific thesis (to my faithful readers, forgive me. I promise the next 5 will be short reads!). BTW, this is not meant to be some display of deeply intellectual analysis but simply my experience and take on what I can consider an epic moment in cinema history.
I have not been to a movie theatre for about 8 years (the same amount of time I have been single). I can’t even recall the last film I saw. Mummy Reds has not been to a theatre since Diary of a Mad Black Woman was released in 2005 – and that was a miracle in itself because she generally favours films made in Technicolor. The time before that, she went to see Grease in Barbados, just before I was born. And the last time she hit up a movie theatre in the UK, it was to see The Sound of Music. So you see what you are dealing with here? Two women are stuck in time (and the house).
We decided we would go see Black Panther on its opening weekend – for de culture!
Not wanting to miss out, I pre-booked tickets 9 days before our preferred viewing, Sunday the 18th of February (I want to remember this date so I can tell my children about it). I was planning on wearing my regular clothing because while I love fantasy and action films, I am not into cosplay. HOWEVER, I started seeing international coverage of the movie premieres and screenings and folk were coming out in their fiercest African and black culture clothing. I decided I didn’t want to be left out. As I am the daughter of a half-Nigerian woman, I viewed it less as cosplay and more as paying homage to the motherland. Too bad nothing fit <insert sad fat face here> so the closest I could get to Wakanda ready was to whip out my faux fur a la Coming to America. Mummy had a head wrap I purchased from a Cameroon owned business, Grass-Fields and a t-shirt portraying her long lost love, Bob Marley (just kidding, she’s obsessed with him. Perhaps in another life they were dating).
The film was showing at noon at our local theatre. If you don’t know my parents and I personally this is where I tell you we are obsessed with time, being on time, meeting our time commitments. If there was an award for most likely to meet the Grim Reaper twenty minutes early, that would be one of us – touch wood though (I am also superstitious). In true <our last name> fashion, we rushed out of our house at 11:30 via taxi and arrived at the theatre by 11:40.
We entered what has to be the saddest movie theatre in modern history (and I have been to some sad theatres in Barbados and Boston). I wanted nachos but they were simply Doritos covered in melted cheese. I looked for popcorn with a bit of extra butter but the attendant nicely let me know that butter is not on offer here. I settled for some dry <insert expletive here> popcorn and a bottle of water. That was £9.00 ($12.60 USD)!!!! Whatever, you can’t go to the movies and not have snacks. That’s movie code.
So we head into theatre 2 to check settle into our VIP seats. By the way, no one checked our tickets so any old Joe could have walked in from the street to get a slice of Wakanda for free. I started to get butterflies as I opened the door to screen 2, and when we walked in, 15 minutes before the film, what did we find? An empty theatre. Not a soul, couldn’t even hear any mice rustling for left over popcorn on the floor.
You. Mean. To. Tell. Me. That. I. Made. All. This. Fuss? For an empty theatre though?
Have on a hot ass fur to embrace the Kingdom of Wakanda, pulled Mummy out of the bed and we have no audience to witness this after-Christmas miracle? This is where I use a West Indian term to describe a universally accepted action when one is not pleased, STEUPSE. Big stinking steupse. (translation, I sucked my teeth).
We sat down and made ourselves comfortable resigned to the fact that we in fact had true VIP treatment, a theatre all to ourselves. Eventually, we had about 18 other people join us. Which was a bit annoying because a family of four sat right next to my mother. The entire spacious theatre and you sit in your assigned seats? STEUPSE again.
We watched the film and I shed tears on numerous occasions. The first leaking of water was when T’Challa arrives home for his ascension to the throne. Panning over scenes of a rural Africa brought pains of bitter-sweetness to my belly. I felt a familiarity in this place (yes I know it’s fictious), like driving on the east coast of Barbados, like walking in rural South Africa. This place felt like my home. We hadn’t even reached Wakanda or the meat of the storyline and I was home.
The next element of the film that struck me was the strength and composure of the female characters. Okoye, leader of an army, fearless and comfortable with her bald head, beating multiple men at a time. All without having to show her body. She didn’t feel prettier by wearing a wig of European hair texture. And that she is not an anomalie, but one of wider population of female warriors and intellectuals.
It was refreshing to see a “token” character played by a white man. This role is generally reserved for people of colour – the lone person who is good but doesn’t rise to the level of epic the lead actors do, often there for a bit of comic relief. Yeah, it was refreshingly strange to see this white man in a supporting role rather than the usual typecast funny black man.
While Black Panther (I have an urge to call it Wakanda) provided lots of entertainment – brilliant fight scenes, high speed chases, and storyline (I love a good backstory) – it also explored a plethora of issues facing black people the world over.
Abandonment – there are generations of black boys and girls who are father-less. Taken from their family homes for various reasons – prison, violence and death, being born into a race purposely re-engineered not to succeed and thus not having the tools to provide (emotionally or otherwise) for a family. While, I was not abandoned, my relationship with my father is complex and his relationship with his father in Barbados was complex (I can’t provide insight beyond that), I understand the anger a painful childhood breeds. And not just anger but resentment that is palatable to anyone observing it. “Why isn’t my father at graduation?, Why isn’t my father at the school dance? Why doesn’t my father take me on vacations? Shit, what is a vacation”. And those are just examples of surface level thoughts.
While many children of single mothers have gone on to be successful even over-achievers to compensate for that loss, many don’t make it. Many fall prey to violence, drugs and or a general state of being lost. This is not new, this phenomenon. N’Jadaka also known as Killmonger perfectly depicted the father-less son of America. From his first display on the screen, his arrogance clearly a manifestation of this anger and the need to prove himself superior to the white people in the museum. There’s always this need to prove yourself to the missing parent.
Superiority Complexes – the African diaspora is a complex one. Members of it are often judgemental of each other depending on what country the slave trade left our ancestors. I feel compelled to write about the varying superiority complexes that exist within the diaspora as a child of a West Indian and a half African-half Brit who lived in America and now lives in her home, England. While there are many prejudices we have to face, a lot of them are internal to our community. I have witnessed so many examples of perceived superiority and this has impacted me by trying to lessen my judgement and trying to be humble (I’m not always successful):
African led superiority – as I have mentioned on numerous occasion my granddad, Babatunde was from Lagos, Nigeria. He married a half Nigerian, part mixed race English woman, Mary. In England, specifically in my family, I have witnessed this superiority of West Africans imposed on black non-Africans. They haven’t hid their disdain very well – being critical of food, education levels, and the culture of black non-Africans both on an individual and collective basis. They often times express judgement when black people wear African clothing, discuss and debate Africa and want to express their African-ness; openly annoyed by what they think is a lack of understanding of what they are actually wearing, talking about. And a continent they’ve never visited. Some native Africans fail to realise that black people were ripped away from Africa, away from that knowledge and are trying (no matter how un- or under-informed) to get back there.
West Indian led superiority – When I first moved to the US as a child with my parents, the northeast of the US was not that welcoming of foreigners. In particular, Hatians and to a lesser extent other West Indians. We built communities and congregated – churches, parties, restaurants, etc. Our culture was different and definitely in your face with its practice of Carnival with women scantily clad on the streets of major American cities like NY, Boston, DC and Miami. Caribbean people faced many prejudices but most of them were from other black people, neighbours, our closer than distant cousins in the diaspora…… We were called coconuts, accused of deviant religious practices (that were in fact passed down from African ancestors) unlike the good ways of black American Christians who followed the faith that was thrust upon them by colonisers. Years of being roasted and frowned at by black Americans AND the fairer races in America, it was only natural that a defense mechanism developed, a hard shell to protect ourselves from the insults. Inevitably this led to many West Indians thinking they were better than these black Americans – after all we spoke proper English, we didn’t shoot each other, we didn’t eat McDonald’s (prior to assimilating). We were simply in the US to obtain our education, make money and keep to ourselves. Not acknowledge that we were amongst our people – descendants of slaves with a different flavour, some similar traditions and definitely many of the same toxic residual left from our capturers.
African American led superiority – Spending my later formative years in the US, I wanted to shed myself of my foreigness. My father and his green Toyota Camry with gold rims and gold teeth, my mum with her Scouser accent. I wanted to be accepted as part of the fabric. When I would go to school, get on the bus, go the hairdressers there were rumblings of resentment. Towards my family, my family’s friends, foreigners, those coconuts who came over on the boat (I know no one who travelled to the US on a boat unless it was a cruise ship). I’ve had the subtle and overt comment thrown at me – “Oh that’s what you’re eating, ewwww”, “Speak English, you’re in America”, “What do you put in your hair? Juices and berries?” (hair texture reference from Coming to America), “Why are yall naked?” (referring to Carnival). There was this attitude that we were undomesticated beasts from the jungle or something. That somehow their years in America made them more civil than us – West Indian or African.
I had a vantage point seeing so-called superiority through these different lens. At times I participated, at times I was shocked at family in friends. At times I protested and at times I was silent. Black Panther makes it clear that we have a problem – black people measuring their worth based on their different experiences, different nationalities and refusing to see the similarities and strengths. Strength in struggle, pride.
Feminism and the importance of woman – Mainstream and black media has been slow to portray woman as an equal to man. In many households, the mother is the nucleus of family unit. Apart from carrying us for nine months, she ensures everyone is nourished, prepared and she is a fierce protector! We’ve (everyone) inherited and propagated a myth that a woman is made strong by men and needs the protection of a man to survive. I witnessed my mother, my friends’ mothers, my friends and strangers overcome significant challenges that may have broken some of the men I know. This includes raising children alone, enduring workplace prejudice, being battered by husbands and these women raised like phoenixes from the ashes fighting fit and ready for the next challenge.
A land where women are viewed as equals. In Wakanda, women are vital to the survival of the kingdom. Okoye and her army of female warriors from the Border Tribe fought men in physical combat with an intensity that I was accustomed to. The look in their eyes one I recognised from years of watching my mother working all the hours God sent, determined to give me a better life than she had. The spirit I recognised in my mother’s fight for her daughter before she was even born.
Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister and technological genius fearless in her expression and desire to improve the world is surely the same fearlessness my little cousins exercise when they debate with the adults in our family, when they share the unconventional paths they want to take when I tell them to do something practical. Shuri is every little girl who has a dream and pursues it without permission from her past or her parents to succeed.
Colourism – It wasn’t lost on me that the cast was a darker hue of black and I LOVED this. In black culture, the light skinned woman is glorified as a prize, something to aspire to. During slavery, she was likely to be a house slave, a position of status. The lighter skinned somehow have an advantage – the key place in videos, lead role in the films, delicate heroine, damsel in distress. This mindset has driven many of us to hate our skin, our beautiful dark brown tones that glimmer in the sunshine. A sub-culture has sprung up that bigs up skin bleaching, keeping out of the sun as not to get too dark (I’ve heard people in my family fret over the darkening of their fair brown skin). N’Jadaka, my favourite villain (is he really a villain?), was the fairest of the cast, again turning the tables on what bad and good looks like in our world. I hope this leads to an embrace of the God-given hue bestowed upon each of us.
Patriotism – as I’ve discussed in other posts, my multicultural background has lessened my inclination to pledge allegiance to any one country or place. I attribute this to not having an anchor. N’Jadaka (I can’t call him Killmonger) was a character I felt drawn to because I felt he was experiencing the same emotional blank. When your parents are from different countries sometimes you have a foot in two places but you never fully belong to either. I feel out of place everywhere. In England – I am the American cousin. In Barbados – I am the Bajan Yankee who lives in England. In Boston – I am just a nondescript foreigner. My Bajan family always pointing out how much I wasn’t Bajan. My English family dismissing me as an American (which I am not). Some of my American family hinting at my snobbery over not being American or unknowingly insulting the foreign parts of me or trying to label me American because of my time in the US. This burns. This leaves you wanting to have a place that embraces you wholly but where is that place? If all life comes from the continent, surely that is my home? But when your home doesn’t acknowledge you, you are a prisoner of a nomad world.
Border Protection – the Wakandans have been able to thrive because they have disguised their technologically advanced society from the world. They have been dismissed as a 3rd world country. This is parallel is probably the most obvious one in the film and the reason we rooted for T’Challa to win in his bid to keep vibranium from falling into the wrong hands. The Congo, rich in minerals and resources such as copper, gold, diamonds, uranium and oil is scarred. This beautiful country, rich in so many ways, has been ground zero for wars and pillaging. A nation torn apart for centuries by colonisers, leaving the people of the Congo deprived and orphaned.
While part of the audience rooted for the vibranium to be exported to enable black people worldwide, many of us recognised the need for this to remain secret. A rich and advanced civilisation would likely fall prey to governments wanting to “explore” the resourcefulness of Wakanda, leaving it as just another 3rd world country crumbling under the pressure of would-be colonisers.
Anything popular inevitably courts controversy and my beloved Black Panther is not without it. Black people have argued amongst themselves over the merits of this production, whether we should go see it, what we should wear to see it, why does it matter? Yes, while the cast and production team are predominantly black, the studios and other major companies behind the comic and film are owned by white people. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support this epic moment in our history? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I am going to make the assumption that the naysayers aren’t going to the theatre to watch any movies? I assume this because I know of no movies produced, starring, directed by, distributed by, studios owned by a black person.
Supporting this film sends a powerful message to Hollywood. Black consumers want to see positive representation on the big screen. Black consumers can cause a shift. What does this mean? What does this do? Everything in this world is driven by demand. We signal that demand, then we receive more of what we demand. This in turn should result in increased films featuring black people and empowered women, enabling a greater number of minorities to be cast. This gives those actors leverage. Leverage to demand equitable salaries and perhaps build studios that employ people who look like us. I can’t believe I even have to explain this. Anyway, ultimately we want to see images that represent/emulate/portray our struggle, our spirit. We want this to be normalised and not just an epic moment in film and black history. (I can’t even take up anymore blog storage to address those of you who have a problem with what people are wearing to go see the movie).
I left the empty-ish theatre renewed, talkative, happy. I had never watched a film that explored so many elements of me without explicitly articulating them. I consumed an encyclopaedia of blackness in two hours. I, all of a sudden saw myself in a different light, accepting of the similarities between myself and N’Jadaka, well-meaning and angry, wanting to right wrongs without consideration of consequences. I wanted to shout Wakanda from the roof of my house (but yeah, I stopped because I am still a coward). I wanted to hug and embrace all of my family and friends and release the resentment over my different-ness. Black Panther (Wakanda) left me wanting to be part of a collective that puts aside the colonial issues we have in turn inflicted on each other. I also left lusting after T’Challa (I also fancy M’Baku, the scene stealer) who is played by Chadwick Boseman and is 40 years old!!! I wonder if he’s single?
This page is self funded. If you are enjoying the content, consider making a small donation.