ARTICLE / LONG READ
THERE is no doubt that BLACK PANTHER (Ryan Coogler 2018) was a huge hit when it was released. One only has to look at how much the film made during its first few months after release on February 12th, reeling in $1.346 billion worldwide. To date, that makes it the tenth highest grossing film of all time.
The film is set in a fictional African country called Wakanda, which has an abundance of wealth and advanced technology due to its possession of the fictional metal vibranium. This land is portrayed with colour and vibrance and many critics and journalists have recognised this deliberate aesthetic of the film, with a large number of references to African heritage and culture.
One of the most key features to note from the film is its nearly all-black leading cast, including notable actors and actresses such as Michael B Jordan (CREED 2016), Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT 2017) and Angela Bassett (WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO
WITH IT 1993). American television journalist and Time magazine writer Jamil Smith is certainly one who appreciated this, stating that “Hollywood has never produced a blockbuster this splendidly black”. Others such as New York-based freelance writer
Khanya Mtshali, noted in a Guardian article at the time, “It’s been joyous to witness black celebrities donning Afrocentric garments at both the Hollywood and London premiere of the film”.
BLACK PANTHER, played by Chadwick Boseman, certainly made an impression when the character was first seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Joe and Anthony Russo 2016), wearing a stylish black suit that made him striking to watch. But now, with his own movie, he has become an icon. Race and culture writer Tre Johnson has even gone as far to say in his Rolling Stone article "Black Superheroes Matter: Why a BLACK PANTHER Movie is Revolutionary": “You’ll see someone with
the arrogance of Shaft, the coolness of Obama and the hot-headed impulsiveness of Kanye West”. Johnson also states that “after years of trying to nail the modern black superhero, we may finally be getting what we asked for”. Like Johnson, others have highlighted the journey towards the release of BLACK PANTHER. More specifically, he refers to the 1970s and the period of "blaxploitation" films, films often made by Hollywood, aiming to appeal to black audiences in order to profit from a high demand for more positive black lead characters on screen.
THE BLACK PANTHER CHARACTER CERTAINLY MADE AN IMPRESSION IN CAPTAIN AMERICA BUT HAS NOW BECOME AN ICON.
American film professors Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin highlight the desire to appeal to black audiences in their book AMERICA ON FILM: REPRESENTING RACE, CLASS, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY AT THE MOVIES. They claim that during the civil rights era in the 1960s and 70s, there was a growing desire for more positive images
of African Americans in film, particularly from the young generation of civil rights activists. Benshoff and Griffin also reveal that the first film that satisfied this desire was the independently-made SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (Melvin Van Peebles 1971). The film followed the adventures of Sweet Sweetback (Peebles), "a streetwise hustler, sexual stud, and 'justified' white cop killer". According to Benshoff and Griffin; “Hollywood saw the profits SWEET SWEETBACK was making and began to produce its own gritty films about urban black protagonists”.
Although BLACK PANTHER is a Hollywood production, it was co-written by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler (who also directs), both of whom are black creatives respected for their work such as AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016-) and FRUITVALE STATION (2013). Mtshali argues that such hiring choices explain why BLACK PANTHER "has generated an overwhelming response from communities that rarely get to see themselves properly represented on screen”.
Throughout the past century, black characters have regularly been poorly represented and marginalised on screen. In BLACK FILM, WHITE MONEY, African
American and African studies professor Jesse Algron Rhines claims that black heroes, particularly from the blaxploitation period were generally given “non-threatening roles on screen”. This is because it is believed that large numbers of the white audience demanded so. Black film studies author Mark A Reid even goes as far to say in his 1993 book REDEFINING BLACK FILM that, "even when commercial films
are made by black writers and directors, a black perspective that acknowledges differences of race, class, gender and sexuality rarely surfaces".
IT TAKES ITS AUDIENCE TO A WORLD WHERE BLACK PEOPLE SHAPE THEIR OWN NARRATIVE.
Of course, BLACK PANTHER is not the first black superhero to be seen on screen, particularly when looking at the past two decades. This includes heroes such as Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter in the LUKE CAGE 2016-2018 television series), the
Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie in the CAPTAIN AMERICA franchise), Storm of the X-MEN (played by Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp) and Black Lightning (played by Cress Williams in the recent Fox series). Although these characters had strong
performances, they still were not enough to put more significant black superheroes on the big screen.
When it comes to race and representation, whiteness is the norm. American studies scholars Jude Davies and Carol R Smith both support this in their 1997 book GENDER, ETHNICITY AND SEXUALITY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN FILM. They claim that "Blackness has fulfilled a specific function as the pre-eminent signifier of otherness, in defining the norm by what it is not". British journalist Reni Eddo Lodge also supports this in her 2017 book WHY I’M NO LONGER TALKING TO WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACE. As a writer who consistently focuses on structural racism, she argues that: “Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born in already written script that tells us what we expect from strangers due to their skin colour, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded ‘white’”.
This is exactly why BLACK PANTHER is considered so politically significant by so many. The film takes its audience to a world where black people shape their own narrative and are key leaders in its development, rather than the other way round. Film studies professor Richard Dyer has argued in his 1997 book WHITE that there is a "political need" to make "whiteness strange". BLACK PANTHER certainly achieves this. The only significant white characters in the film are Klaw (Andy Serkis), who is one of the two main villains in the film, and CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman). These characters are consistently depicted as the minority.
There are even moments where black characters make small remarks about slavery and colonisation towards the white characters. Not only this, but the idea that Africa and Africans are primitive compared to the rest of the world, particularly Western society, is flipped on its head. Instead, Wakanda is far more advanced, with technology that allows them to take on any country on earth and win.
Despite this, there have been a fair few criticisms raised about the portrayal of Africa, particularly in Hollywood. Guardian journalist Steve Rose touches on this in his 2018 article "BLACK PANTHER: Does the Marvel Epic Solve Hollywood's Africa Problem?"
He acknowledges that the film is not the first time that Hollywood has taken its audience to a fictional African Kingdom, stating that: "Before Wakanda, there was Zamunda (COMING TO AMERICA 1988), whose compendium of cliches showed just
how large the gap could be between 'African' and 'American', and how much work BLACK PANTHER has to do”. Rose highlights that due to images of Africa before, particularly in white popular culture, many (white) people may have already formed their own assumptions about what Africa is actually like, and changing that image is no mean feat.
Others such as theology studies journalist Alease A Brown have also recognised Coogler’s attempt to give a fresh outlook towards Africa and its representation. In her article for The Conversation - "Black People Beware: Don’t Let BLACK PANTHER
Joy Mask Hollywood’s Racism" - she argues that the film"appears within a broad Hollywood tradition, with over 100 years of history, that portrays Africa as wild [...] and Africans as tribal savages, backwards and subordinate". This would suggest that BLACK PANTHER is just the next installment of films to follow this trend of showcasing Africa in a style that could be misleading and damaging.
WAKANDA IS A CULTURAL AND POLITICAL STATEMENT FOR WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AFRICAN AND TO BE OF AFRICAN DESCENT.
However, BLACK PANTHER offers much more than that. For many the film is a cultural statement for black culture. Steve Rose quotes Los Angeles based black culture writer Tyree Boyd-Pates, who sees Wakanda as a black utopia: “That paradigm of black people that exceeds the expectations of white civilisation [...] and connects them back to the motherland in a way no colonial effort could ever undermine”. This type of view would suggest the significance and strength of BLACK PANTHER and its potential impact for black representation.
In BLACK AMERICAN CINEMA, Afro-American affairs professor Manthia Diawara illustrates the significance of spatial narration, where narrative comes into contact with geography. It is a useful concept for considering BLACK PANTHER's Wakanda. Narrative space is the physical environment in which the characters of the narrative live and move. Diawara argues that black filmmakers use spatial narration in order to reveal "Black spaces" that have been suppressed by "White times". He argues that: “Spatial narration is a filmmaking of cultural restoration, a way for Black filmmakers to reconstruct Black history, and to posit specific ways of being Black Americans in the United States”. In the context of BLACK PANTHER this would certainly seem to fit. Although Wakanda is a fictional place, it is a cultural and political statement for what it means to be African and to be of African descent. Coogler even told Rolling Stone
before the film was released that the main question he wanted to answer was: "What does it mean to be African?".
It is evident that BLACK PANTHER is a significant milestone in terms of racial image and, more specifically, the role of black superheroes and the image of Africa. The film has managed to satisfy a wide range of people, particularly those who have felt under-represented or misrepresented on screen for so long. Not only this, Ryan Coogler has provided a re-imagined Africa that is just as vibrant as the people that live within it. Perhaps Guardian writer Steve Rose summarises the impact of BLACK
PANTHER best, in stating that: "For many, BLACK PANTHER is more than just another blockbuster, it is a cultural moment".