/ 23 February 2018

Black Panther is more than just representation

About 22% of Birmingham residents are Muslim. Significant
About 22% of Birmingham residents are Muslim. Significant

I did not see the trailer of Black Panther before I watched it. Deliberately so. I do not watch movie trailers for the same reason I do not read book excerpts before purchasing books. Too many times the excerpts and the trailers turn out to be the best thing about the book or movie.

But I knew I was going to watch Black Panther. For the same reason I watched Tell Me Sweet Something, Happiness is a Four Letter Word, Love Jones and many other movies featuring black actors. For the same reason I purchase books by black writers as soon as they’re out and watch productions by black artists.

Too often our art is othered and, even when its good, ends up costing the producers rather than benefiting them — excusing the lack of funding for something similar in the future.

And so when a woman called Phuthi in a group I belong to suggested that I buy my Black Panther ticket from a black-owned mall, I rallied some friends and did so. Despite my residency at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies (Jias) in Westdene, I found my way to Centurion for the 8pm show on Friday last week.

When I got to Ster Kinekor in Forest Hill Mall, one would have thought Heritage Day had changed its dates.

Folks were resplendent in their adire and ankara, their shweshwe and umbhaco. The theatre management decided to start screening later than the 8pm slot to allow everyone to be seated. It felt like this screening was meant for us.

I had no expectations when I went in, except that I was going to be watching the screening of a black superhero movie with people I like.

What happened during the movie was something I had experienced almost two weeks earlier when I went to watch Inxeba — a film whose hype I had similarly avoided before I saw it.

As a young T’Chaka, one Atandwa Kani, is seen on screen, we all find ourselves hollering and clapping at seeing one of our own. A song by Babes Wodumo plays and the audience sings along.

Connie Chiume, Daniel Kaluuya, Michael B Jordan, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o bring chuckles and expressions of appreciation when they appear.

When the villain Erik Killmonger expresses a desire to own a certain African artifact and the curator of the space tells him it is not for sale, his response is met with applause from the whole theatre.

The curator asks: “Do you think your ancestors paid a fair price for it?”

This is like the conversation we all seem to have exchanged so many times among us.

I was also hearing isiXhosa for the second time in two weeks on screen. Granted, the Hollywood movie could have used more practice but it was still precious to hear, even as we giggled at the mangling of the language.

The experience went beyond just seeing black faces on screen. Hollywood has done that previously.

What was precious about Black Panther to many who look like me is that this film has black people whose characters are well rounded.

The night before, I had been having a conversation with a South African poet while having drinks at Jias. We were debating about a certain Nobel winner’s portrayal of black characters in his book. She said she had appreciated his work because it gave her insight into what black people were going through during apartheid.

I said I did not appreciate his work because, although no one can dictate to an artist about what to write, we can certainly ask that, when they write, they do not make characters flat when they’re of another race.

Our common humanity shows that we all love, laugh, cry, like, hate and hurt. A failure to show this in a work of art dehumanises the artist’s subject — an act that appears patronising when done by someone who is not from the same demographic.

In Black Panther there are nuanced characters. Even the Killmonger cannot be hated. Indeed, in a conversation with a friend, he is a villain I could defend. After all, he won the throne fairly.

Importantly, for those of us who have gone to family funerals of some uncle who sowed his wild oats or some aunt who claimed her son was her brother, Killmonger was that secret the family tries to keep quiet so they can remain respectable in the eyes of the world. And yet his cause and his anger cannot be considered unjust because he is a product of the world he was raised in.

And then there is the representation of the black women in the film. In a world in which black women seem to carry many burdens — whether it be her massa’s child or the burden of being considered an ABC (angry black chick) — when they speak up, the black women of Black Panther are assertive without apology.

In the young techie Shuri, we see someone without whose skills T’Challa’s throne would be less powerful. Nakia’s abilities to converse in different languages and enter diverse spaces despite her being different are useful to her spy missions.

And then there is General Okoye (my personal favourite) whose love for her country surpasses her love for a man and who, together with her army of Dora Milaje, is the chief defender of the nation. One cannot help but feel that without the women, this film would fall apart. And that, perhaps, is testament to the skill of the scriptwriters.

After the movie, I found myself walking out with the swagger of Okoye. And that swagger has not left my step. This, perhaps, is why I want every boy and every girl who looks like me to watch this movie. Because, at almost 42, it has awoken in me a sense of pride and dignity I had no idea I had lost from all those many years of being erased in international public discourse.

In Wakanda, there is no first black because black is the SI unit for excellence.

This is not to say I found nothing to criticise about the movie. It would not be art if there was nothing to criticise.

As mentioned earlier, isiXhosa is mangled by some of the actors. Perhaps there needed to be a longer time for language coaching.

Similarly, the United Nations scene is eyebrow-raising. It seems very naive that Black Panther would actually believe that the UN would uphold peace on Earth and goodwill to all women — therefore trusting them with Wakanda’s vibranium. Or that the people of Wakanda can actually trust that a CIA operative would be an ally.

Finally, one cannot help but feel Africans in Africa are romanticised but members of the diaspora are considered less regal. This seems to be the case, if our hero and villain in this movie are any indication.

I am convinced though that there is a lot more to Black Panther than what I got from a single viewing.

So I will be watching it again on Saturday.

And maybe two or three more times. For all the unpacking I need to do.

And because, yes, Michael B Jordan takes off his shirt.


Zukiswa Wanner is a Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies fellow