19 February 2018

Zimbabwe: The African Superhero

Photo: Black Panther
Lupita and Danai in Black Panther.

Breaking the tradition of this column, this week the reader shall become the watcher. On Friday, the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Black Panther" was released and it warranted space on these pages.

In a previous column, I wrote about my aversion to adaptations of books to films. This still stands, however, in the world of comic books my position is completely different.

Comic books originated in 18th Century Japan, but really came into their own after they gained popularity in the United States of America from the 1930s. This form of literature, which comprises art juxtaposed with text and speech bubbles, creates a flowing narrative for the reader.

The 1930s is when superheroes became popular in comic books with characters like Superman and Captain Marvel.

The fame of the former would spawn a whole generation of other superheroes with various abilities, often fighting super villains in a good vs evil manner.

From the 1940s, following the success of the comic books, a number of the characters were to then grace the silver screen. This turned out to be a great move and birthed a number of incredible films.

Perhaps the fact that the dialogue and still image shots from comic books are already there make it easier for the films to be shot and them to work.

Some of the most famous superhero films include the late 1970s, early 1980s DC Comics, Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve.

Batman is another DC Comics franchise, which has done particularly well in terms of films though one still has issues with George Clooney's portrayal of Gotham's vigilante hero in 1997 "Batman & Robin".

For a long time, superhero films were generally independent of each other though in the comic books characters have been known to crossover and appear in other stories.

In 2008, Marvel began a journey creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would ultimately bring together a number of their comic book characters, including "Iron Man", "Thor", "The Hulk", "Captain America", "Vision" "The Guardians of the Galaxy", "Dr Strange" and "Black Panther" together.

Now, on to "Black Panther".

The character was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He was introduced to the MCU in "Captain America Civil War" and since then fans have been waiting for the "Black Panther" solo project and will not be disappointed.

Without giving too much away, the film is about T'Challa becoming the king of the fictional African country Wakanda, that was never colonised.

The country has advanced technology after a meteor hit and they managed to manipulate a rare metal known as vibranium. They shut themselves off to the world as they did not want their precious resource or expertise getting into the wrong hands.

Following the death of his father T'Chaka, as the new king, T'Challa, faces a conflict, both internal and external of standing by the traditions of his country and protecting his people as the Black Panther or opening up to the world.

The film, directed by Ryan Coogler is absolutely incredible.

It stars a primarily all black cast of mixed nationalities, American, African and Caribbean. The film deals with themes that are easily related to black audiences. It speaks on family issues, it touches colonialism, the Diaspora, culture and tradition vs modernity and globalisation.

In their portrayal of Africa, the filmmakers did their research and created a culture that was believable and did not come across as a gimmick. They incorporated elements from actual African tribes like the Sotho and the OvaHimba.

The cast, including Zimbabwean actress, Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye, the General of Wakanda's army did an incredible job of balancing the serious issues that the film dealt with without making them heavy.

To achieve this, the film was interspersed with lighter moments such as those brought by Letitia Wright's character Shuri, who was for me the stand out star.

One of the important takeaways is that it imagines an African country that developed untouched by colonial influence. Wakanda, according to Chadwick Boseman, who plays Black Panther, is inspired by the Mutapa Empire, which was centred at Great Zimbabwe, but spread to parts of modern day South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique.

Although it is a fictional movie, there is a lot for black people world over to feel proud of about and learn from the film.

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