The history and legacy of slavery is what this popcorn-selling blockbuster both fights and mourns, says playwright, author and critic Bonnie Greer
Black Panther is on its way to joining an elite society: the Billion Dollar Movie Club. Steeped in Afrofuturism and African American phantasmagoria, this is the film that has defied expectations.
And what expectations are those? That a film starring black people cannot be mainstream, by its definition. And, even more than that, that only black people will go see it. It is breaking records and making a fortune in record time.
My brother has not only revealed to me for the first time that he has been a Black Panther aficionado since the character first appeared in comic book form in 1966, but that he was the only black person queuing to see the new film in a line that wrapped around the block.
When I appeared on the CNN show Talk recently, we waited for one negative response to the film from the programme’s international audience. Not one. This is a curious and unusual phenomenon and says something about what people need right now.
The film features a place called Wakanda, a make-believe (and this must be stressed: Wakanda does not exist. Some people believe it does) kingdom that has never been colonised, never been touched. It becomes a place of fulfilment. But in an adult way. It is not Oz. It is the ‘secret’, the ‘thing hidden’.
And this is part of the film’s universal appeal. Wakanda is the kid who is pushed around in the schoolyard, but who has a special place where ‘They Know Who He Really Is, Where He Really Comes From’. This is instantly clear at the beginning when two little boys from The ‘Hood suddenly show their connection to one another.
This happens in 1992 and it is the first signal from this imaginarium that this film will take its own ground.
1992 was the year of the LA Riots, when the city erupted after footage was shown on television of an unarmed black motorist, Rodney King, being beaten to a pulp for no reason, by a cadre of taunting white officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. The film subtly references this for those who know, but does not dwell. It moves quickly to the point: Wakanda, who runs Wakanda and what is Wakanda?
From a rather dicey name, Wakanda becomes the lost paradise. And Black Panther is about the search for it, externally and internally. Unlike the Land Of Oz, Wakanda dares its audience to look back at what was taken away.
This is the poignancy of this mainstream film.
A film, in the end, is the work of the director in that she / he literally calls the shots. There was ample opportunity to make a hash of Black Panther. All of the ingredients are there: fairytale African country; fairytale black hero. This is sidestepped by the film’s director, who will be 32 in May, Ryan Kyle Coogler.
He played college football, sport being one of the ways into a better life. He was encouraged to write at university, and, taking all the film courses he could, he made short films and won prizes. But it was his 2013 production, Fruitvale Station, which put him on the map and its sensibility is laced throughout Black Panther.
The earlier film’s poignant story – the life of an ordinary guy who ends up killed – is one of those small masterpieces that Godard or Truffaut might have made at the beginning of their careers. Fruitvale Station is what used to be called ‘art house’ or ‘cinema’. It stars Michael B Jordan, Coogler’s muse, who plays a kind of villain in Black Panther, Killmonger. But like so much that Black Panther makes you do, you wonder if Killmonger, or the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is the real villain.
The history of it and the legacy of it is what Black Panther both fights and mourns. Depending on where you or your ancestors fit in the narrative of Africa from about 1485 to now, whether you benefitted or suffered, informs the response to Killmonger. He is the black ‘special forces’ soldier specialising in US ‘black ops’, now trying to claw back black history from the cerebral hero, the king of Wakanda, the Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman.
The subtexts, the subtle asides, the in-jokes (as a former deputy chair of the British Museum I found one sequence especially cutting and witty) all of this comes at you at such a level that you sit in what is an African American dream world. The film’s African accents are done with care; its fashion is stunning. But, as one Londoner whose parents came from Kenya explained: ‘Black Panther is a kind of African one-stop shop. You’ll get bits of this mixed with bits of that.’ It would be a mistake and to miss the point if you go to this film as an anthropologist.
Black Panther is much more than that. And that it exists now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ‘shithole countries’ remark, makes it all the more of a wonder. And a herald.
Any of these elements: the great performances; the pleasant surprise of the all-female special force that serves the king of Wakanda; the music; would have made this film a success.
But what you take away are three things. First, the great story-telling. Coogler’s and Joe Robert Cole’s script marshals all of the elements of the Aristotelian arc: there is a beginning; a rising action; a turning point; a falling action (with a twist); and the end. As my script-writing teacher once pointed out: this shape is how we ourselves see our own lives unfolding, how we relay the story of our lives back to ourselves and to one another.
Second, all the Western tropes are there: the lost prince; the hidden treasure; the true love. And some African ones two: loyalty to clan; loyalty to tradition. You can go to this film with little kids; with your grandmother; alone.
And, third, like every landmark film, Black Panther also points the way to a cultural moment. In this film, it is not only the Afrofuturism of it, or the fact that one of its big set pieces takes place in South Korea, the home of K-pop – the biggest musical phenomenon on earth right now. It is that it contains a big cultural moment, marked by the presence of a young woman, Shuri.
She is the Black Panther’s younger sister, played by North London’s own Letitia Wright. She is in charge of the technological operations of the superscientific and hidden Wakanda. In other words, she is Q. And the film does not blink an eye.
According to a study, the participation of girls in archery rose after the release of The Hunger Games and Brave. Indiana Jones made archaeology studies spike. Jurassic Park hailed the rise of palaeontology. And now Shuri looks set to do the same thing for women in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Shuri is the smartest person in a smart film, and her wit and absolute belief in her own genius and capability, along with her devotion to her big brother places Black Panther in that recognisable universe of family.
This is a mainstream, popcorn-selling blockbuster that offers just that bit more. There is a message for Remain in it, too. Right at the very end.