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Black Panther

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

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Film (2018). Walt Disney Motion Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company) presents a Marvel Studios production. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Written by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler, based on a character created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) who then starred in Marvel Comics's Jungle Action #6-#24 (September 1973-November 1976) and thereafter in five volumes of Black Panther before being relaunched in a new series under head writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (April 2016), including the miniseries Black Panther: Long Live The King Vol 1 (February-April 2018) written by Nnedi Okorafor. Cast includes Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Winston Duke, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira, Michael B Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker and Letitia Wright. Colour. 134 minutes.

King T'Challa of Wakanda (Boseman) must face the legacy of Slavery and the lasting impact of Imperialism to deliver on the promise of Afrofuturism in the eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"Y'all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There's about two billion people around the world who look like us and their lives are a lot harder," says N'Jadaka (Jordan), long-lost cousin to the shaman-king and Superhero "Black Panther", as he announces his surprise challenge for the throne: "I killed in America, Afghanistan and Iraq. I took life from my own brothers and sisters on this continent. All this death just so I could kill you."

The best Villains make sense of the paradigms they oppose; that the major antagonist of Black Panther, now grown up to become US military intelligence operative Erik "Killmonger" Stevens after being abandoned by the custodians of his Wakandan heritage as a boy, expresses everything that has gone wrong with the world and, simultaneously, everything that might go right with it in the Near Future, gives him a moral force far beyond that of any of the Aliens, AIs or Gods and Demons that have previously served as signifiers of large-scale Disaster in the Shared Worlds of the MCU. That he is also the agency of the Conceptual Breakthrough that persuades the Pocket Universe of Wakanda to re-territorialize as a member of the United Nations recasts the Lost World trope as one of cultural elision and false consciousness. N'Jadaka speaks the truth about Race in SF that large parts of the SF Megatext has had trouble accepting.

A meteor (see Comets) lands in central Africa, causing five tribes to go to war over the apparently-magical properties of the new metallic Element "vibranium", a variant on the old sf staple of Unobtainium here combined with some of the real-world attributes of coltan, a dull metallic ore found in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo capable of maintaining a high electrical charge. A warrior gains heightened strength, dexterity and Perception by ingesting a "heart-shaped herb" growing in the vicinity of the impact, uniting all but the reclusive Jabari tribe behind the Superpowers of the first Black Panther. (The terrain over which the Jabari reign is altered from the jungle of the Black Panther Comics to that of mountains and the Apes as Human costume of its modern-day leader M'Baku (Duke) altered in order to differentiate it from racist depictions of people of African descent.) This provides the Marvel story engine with the means to position M'Baku as the major challenge to T'Challa's reign as Black Panther in the first instance – the hoary old sf Cliché of single combat is here much enlivened by the provision of vibrant and alluring African aesthetics and a precipitous waterfall – and then, later on, as T'Challa's means of salvation and spiritual rebirth. It is an effective narrative device, and all the more so when deployed, as it often is, in stories that derive their character beats from the community-saving shamanic escapades of Mythology, such as in the Science Fantasy of Gene Wolfe or, indeed, that of Star Wars or any number of Graphic Novels. Where Black Panther excels is in the way it combines the challenge-injury-death-rebirth arc of its central protagonist with the homecoming motif of its major antagonist, a theme highlighted by Geoff Ryman in the author's 100 African Writers of SFF series for Strange Horizons. "Science fiction and Fantasy are rooted in a habit of mind that loves to see dreams made flesh and reality re-imagined," Ryman says in the "Introduction: On Diaspora" section of "100 African Writers of SFF – Part Two: Writers in the UK": "One reaches out to the future, the other looks towards a past, but I would say both come from a similar impulse ... Diasporas make you the Other. You know better what it is like to be an alien."

Aesthetics derived from real-world cultures move the character and cultural heritage of Black Panther away from the extra-terrestrial register of Jack Kirby's original design – but these imaginative possibilities are, if anything, rendered as more science-fictional in effect by relating them to the world in which we all live. "The imaginary is what tends to become real," said surrealist poet André Breton (1896-1966), both a public opponent of colonialism and an avid collector of African masks and artefacts. Indigenous cultures of the African continent are in Black Panther used to overturn and re-energize the tendency of Fantastika to exoticize what it has not taken the trouble to understand. This amplifies the transgressive force of the form and grants it greater properties of truth-telling. "Don't scare me like that, colonizer!" says T'Challa's 16-year-old sister Shuri (Wright) to CIA agent Everett K Ross (Freeman) as he expresses disbelief at the rapidity of his recovery from a terminal wound. "Not by Magic, by Technology!" she insists, showing him the vibranium-powered kimoyo beads that are the agency of his recuperation. Marvel suggested to director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler that Black Panther might be the James Bond (see Ian Fleming) of the MCU: the mundane implications of the Technothriller are however much transformed by the Politics of the Satire delivered via dialogue by Shuri, N'Jadaka and the character of General Okoye (Gurira), and by combining the high-tech applications of vibranium – sometimes used as a Power Source, sometimes as the means to access other Dimensions, but always as a conduit to deeper Identity – with designs from cultures in the vicinity of the fictional Wakanda. The Maasai of Kenya inspired the clothing of the all-female special forces led by Okoye, and the Basotho, Dinka, Dogon, Himba, Suri, Tuareg, Turkana and Zulu peoples that of the garb of other characters in the film, and countries from Sub-Saharan Africa such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda the mise en scène of Wakanda. A similar fusion of old and new informed the Songhai and Aksum stylings of the futuristic architecture of the Golden City of Wakanda and of the Afropunk-inflected panache of its street scenes. "Afrofuturism tends towards the typical Cyberpunk acceptance of capitalism as an unquestionable universe and working for the assimilation of certain currently marginalized peoples into a global system that might, at best, tolerate some relatively minor (although not unimportant) reforms, but within which the many will still have to poach, pilfer, and hide to survive," writes Mark Bould in Science Fiction Studies (July 2007). "How do you think your ancestors got these?" N'Jadaka asks a museum curator at the "Museum of Great Britain" at the beginning of the film: "Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?" "He was the truth I chose to omit," says the murdered king T'Chaka (Kani) to his son in the spirit realm when T'Challa asks why T'Chaka abandoned N'Jadaka to the racist depredations of North America. "I know how colonizers think, so we'll use their own Weapons against them," says N'Jadaka of his time working for the CIA to destabilize governments around the world as he becomes king: "The War was never over and this time we're on top." "Soon it will be the conquerors and the conquered," says leader of the Border Tribe, W'Kabi (Kaluuya), after he switches allegiance to support N'Jadaka's claim to the throne: "I'd rather be the former." N'Jadaka's eventual loss to T'Challa at the film's denouement does not impede his moral force: "Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage."

Actor-producer Wesley Snipes planned to adapt Black Panther for the Cinema following the success of Demolition Man (1993), a possibility that seemed all the more likely in the wake of the box-office impact of Vampires-as-superheroes comic book adaptation Blade (1998). Corporate problems at Marvel stalled the project. Snipes said financiers balked at the idea the film might be associated with the Black Panther Party (1966-1982); Marvel Comics had briefly changed the name of the character to "Black Leopard" to avoid associations with the emergence of Black Power movements in the year that Nichelle Nichols first appeared as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek (September 1966), but soon re-instated it. "You might say that this African nation is fantasy," said lead-actor Chadwick Boseman in an interview with Time magazine. "But to have this opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places and real African concepts, and put it inside this idea of Wakanda – that's a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you're disconnected from it." Stan Lee told actors on the set of Black Panther that he wanted the character to be everything that racists assumed a person of African heritage could not be – clever, rich and so on. And it is true that Wakanda in some part represents the industrial and military hegemony of a country like the United States, and all the more so when it emerges from under its cloak of Invisibility at the end of the film to become a leader of the United Nations. As an argument for the inclusion of an African perspective in the geopolitical landscape of the Avengers, however, the film could hardly be any better. It is a testament to the skills and perspicacity of screenwriters Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole – a product of the Marvel writers' programme – that they have so convincingly woven a series of pressing themes into popular entertainment and in so doing presented a persuasive case for a better world.

Bucky Barnes – the Antihero introduced into the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and placed into Cryonic storage by Wakandan Scientists at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) – appears here in a credit cookie sequence with T'Challa's sister Shuri, indicating that both he and Black Panther are to play central roles in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). [MD]

see also: The Avengers; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Luke Cage.


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