15 March 2018

Uganda: As a Film Black Panther Is Okay, As a Statement It Is Deeply Problematic

Photo: Black Panther
Black Panther
opinion

I finally gave in to the hype - and sustained domestic terror threats - and took the offspring to watch Black Panther, the new action movie by Marvel. I was seriously conflicted.

In order to understand Black Panther, we must see it as both a film and as a statement. The film is based on Wakanda, a fictional African country that has featured in Marvel's comics since the 1960s, and which is the home of the superhero Black Panther. It has been a runaway success, grossing more than a billion dollars and feeding the cultural zeitgeist, from Washington to Wandegeya.

It is easy to see why. The script is action-packed, the gems of highbrow humour laid unobtrusively so as not to trip the gladiators, and the cinematography is a joy to watch. The film has also been acclaimed - rightly so - for casting Black actors in its leading roles.

Nearer home, we have been quick to embrace it for, among other reasons, starring Kenya's Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Kaluuya, who is British, but has Ugandan roots, and German-based Ugandan actress Florence Kasumba.

Partly as a result of this, the film has become a statement of sorts for Black emancipation. It follows a wave of activist campaigns against minority subjugation like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as discrimination against and abuse of women in Hollywood that has given rise to the #MeToo wave.

Why, then, would any one have a problem with wearing African print, doing the Wakanda salute and celebrating a movie in which Africans are seen saving the world instead of standing in dusty queues in refugee camps, or flying futuristic planes instead of being below-hold cargo on slave ships?

This, after all, is a film whose title and superhero emerged contemporaneously with the Black Panthers, a political movement started in California in 1966 to push back against police brutality towards the black community.

A small part of the problem is with the stereotypes that Black Panther subliminally reinforces. The biggest resource that makes Wakanda work isn't the talent and industry of its people, but vast reserves of vibranium, a super mineral that does everything from powering its cities to bringing the dead back to life.

This is Africa as it is often projected to the world: A place where, if you look away from its poor and diseased natives, teems with idyllic landscapes, majestic waterfalls, strange animals and vast mineral resources underfoot.

Western films generally show the industry of the people, be they computer geniuses or brilliant military strategists or courageous fighters who go into battle against entire foreign armies and return home to cold compresses and warm meals.

At the heart of the film is the succession dispute in Wakanda, but even here the plot is marinated in stereotype: An advanced society that can do time travel, fly aircraft faster than the speed of sound and run superfast maglev trains, still turns to ancient hand-to-hand mortal combat, in native regalia, to resolve the question of who should be king.

At best, this suggests a misreading or ignorance, by the scriptwriter, of the central role the rule of law, including the management of power, its distribution and transition, plays in the evolution of society, and why DR Congo, which has vast uranium deposits, has no nuclear weapons and remains a basket case.

At worst, it is a joke on us all, trotting through cinema walkways in our leopard prints.

Which brings us to the bigger problem. This isn't with the film or its sub-textual references to stereotype or ephemeral treatment of geopolitics. The director, after all, has artistic licence to present the CIA and its field agents on any side of the anti-colonial cum liberation agenda.

It is how we fall over ourselves to be defined, in identity and aspiration, by the way others see us. This is not a new problem and Black Panther only reminds us of it, without causing it; the nature of the cast doesn't make it worse, but neither does it cure it.

These are quite possibly the rumblings of a grumpy middle-aged columnist, who doesn't understand film, but it is problematic when we celebrate - and define our identity - through externalised stereotypical mythology.

I am all for celebrating a seat at the table, but to set our own table means to queue up to watch and celebrate African cinema - and there is a lot of that around us - as much as we do Hollywood. The problem isn't with Black Panther; it is with the way we watch it and what else we don't see -- or watch.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's freedom fighter.

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