Last month, I was blessed with the opportunity to become a part of history. I was invited to see an advanced screening of the American phenomenon, Black Panther. The film which featured a primarily Black cast, was also diverse with respect to nationality, and origin of birth. Never has a film featuring a predominantly Black cast, been given such an enormous budget, especially considering that the director was a young Black male. But the movie was a hit, and has grossed over $400 million worldwide in less than a week from its debut. The success of this movie shatters long held stereotypes in Hollywood, the myths, that movies portraying African culture, and African people, would not fare well domestically, and internationally. The movie has left a lasting impression on its viewers, and has single-handedly, pushed the culture forward.
Since long before the movie was released, there has been much discussion, dialogue, and critique surrounding the film. These conversations have been long overdue and for once, did not arise from a typical movie about slavery, or a role where the character was the sidekick, or the cheesy horror films where the Black person is always the first to die off. Although this movie is for everyone, it is special for people of African descent. It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves through so many different characters in the movie. We see our African selves, but we also see our American selves. We can identify with parts from both the heroes, and the villain, and everyone in between. We see the complexities of being an African people in a land not of our own, played out in the film. We also see some of the cultural similarities, differences, and conflicts between Africans from the continent, and Africans in the diaspora.
The film was a great representation of not only what Africa could have been had it not been ransacked by slavery, colonialism, and internal strife, but it also represents the possibilities of our future. As an Africana Studies major, I was fortunate to learn a lot about Pre-colonial African history, which is purposefully kept out of our schools. I’m fortunate to have been exposed to educators who taught me about the great Kingdoms of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, of West Africa, And Nubia, Axom, Kush, Ethiopia and Kemet of Eastern and Northern Africa. These civilizations during their peak were the most powerful in the world, yet the history of these Kingdoms is left out, and our knowledge of self begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, even though there were thousands of years of uninterrupted history before that. Our history classes make no mention of Mansa Musa, the great African King, whose wealth to this day is unmatched by any human being, and is still considered as the world’s richest man in history. Time magazine reported that Musa was “Richer than anyone could describe”. Mansa Musa ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century and his land was laden with lucrative natural resources, most notably gold. He was also a successful military leader, having captured 24 cities, according to David C. Conrad’s “Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.” Musa Keita I came into power in 1312. At the time, much of Europe was struggling and facing declining gold and silver production, while many African kingdoms were thriving. During his famous trip to Mecca, it is said that Musa gave away so much gold to the poor, that it caused mass inflation and devalued the price of gold in all of Northern Africa. While the numbers may vary just slightly, “Mansa Musa’s reportedly 60,000-strong caravan was said to include 1,000 attendants, 100 camels loaded with gold, plenty of the emperor’s own personal musicians, and 500 servants bearing gold staffs, a caravan that stretched as far as the eyes could see”.
This is just one of many remarkable stories in African history, but I use this reference to equate the wealth of Musa to T’CHalla’s, the Black Panther. Hollywood’s portrayal of Black people has too long been skewed, using only the most derogatory images to portray a culturally and ethnically diverse people. I did notice a few different and distinctly African components in the film. Much of the film reminded me of Sundiata’s journey, otherwise known as the Lion King of Mali. This story, which was a real occurrence, highlights the hero’s journey, a journey of a King who finds himself in isolation, and must rise above his adversities, to be given the opportunity to reclaim his rightful place on the thrown. Another African component was the language used in the film, which was modeled after a real African Language. The filmmakers used isiXhosa or Xhosa, one of South Africa’s official languages, part of the Bantu family, to solidify the story’s African authenticity.
African clothing was a significant part of the film, which added to the richness of Wakandan culture. Styles from a variety of groups, including the Maasai, Toureg, Akan, Mursi, and Ndebele, are represented in the film. And the “African diaspora around the world used the film’s opening to showcase their African or African-inspired fashions.” The spiritual part of the film was distinctly African. Ancestral worship, a way to communicate with the ancestors who have passed beyond this plane is an African practice that is thousands of years old. Also, respect to certain deities, different tribes worshiped different deities. The king’s people worshiped Bast, the Panther God, much like ancient African civilization did in the past.
Just like in much of African history, there were occurrences where Black women occupied very high positions of power. They were the heads of Kingdoms, and in some matriarchal societies, royalty was passed down by the women in the family. In the film, the women were the mothers and wives of royalty, the enhancers of technology, the cultivators of the sacred plants, and the fierce warriors who protected the king and the kingdom. They were not slaves, or prostitutes, or any other negative long-held stereotype that Hollywood consistently portrays. The movie showcased many different tribes, who in like traditional African societies, have contributed different skill sets to the kingdom.
“A somewhat nebulous figure, the Queen of Sheba (fl. 10th century BCE)—known also as Bilqis and as Makeda—figures prominently in Judaic, Islamic, and Ethiopian traditions. Her legendary voyage to meet Solomon, King of Israel, has inspired centuries of speculation about her kingdom and influence in the ancient world. Modern-day Ethiopians believe her, as the mother of their first Emperor, Menilek I, to be the ultimate maternal ancestor of the dominant Ethiopian royal dynasty.”
U.S society has typically deemed anything with even the slightest hint of African influence as unacceptable. From the banning of Black women wearing their natural hairstyles in the workplace, and in the military, to the demonization of African American vernacular English, which possesses hints of African speech patterns from various parts of West Africa. It is important to know that most cultural characteristics that have been deemed unacceptable, are usually done so only until white America sees how profitable these attributes are (ie. Jazz music which was once called the devil’s music). These themes, however, were major attributes of the film, and gave it a diverse perspective. Overall, the movie was great! I could write on forever about it. To see young children at the theater watching positive representation of themselves was heartwarming. Usually, as people of color, we are forced to identify with characters who don’t look like us. This film had brilliant writing, and beautiful characters. It is an absolute must see.