[The Film Blog] African Americans or Native Africans: Who is “Black Panther” really for?

Black Panther

The press cycle for Marvel’s Black Panther is currently in overdrive. Op-eds and think pieces are out in torrents, quotes and memes and merchandise seem firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist, and let us not forget the world premiere that held last month, with some of the film’s stars giving us a “Welcome to Wakanda” tease in African-leaning outfits. Black Panther is having more than a moment: tickets sold out so fast even Lupita Nyong’o couldn’t buy one, and a dissenting group on Facebook with the malicious intent to flood Rotten Tomatoes with negative reviews was thwarted in time.

While we are caught up in heartwarming Black Panther fanfare, and before the cinema premiere on February 16 which I’m calling “Wakanda Day,” I feel the Marvel blockbuster should be stripped down to its most culturally compelling facet – a standalone superhero film that features an all-black cast. But without proper nuance, black becomes vague and generic, and therein lies the obfuscation commercially attached to Black Panther, ambiguous enough to straddle as many African-derived elements as it sees fit. “The cast combines African and African-American actors, and the national language of Wakanda is, in fact, Xhosa.” writes Steve Rose in a recent piece for The Guardian. From the African American community, Black Panther is receiving vibrant support – rap titan Kendrick Lamar co-produced the film’s soundtrack alongside director Ryan Coogler, which Lamar unveiled the album artwork for last week.

It’s also not surprising that Black Panther coincides with Black History Month, the annual celebration established to recognise the history, experiences and accomplishments of black people. And I have to add that this is performed through the lens of a (post)-racial America. So where does this leave native Africans? And how much of a stake do they have in the most anticipated, big-studio production from Marvel? Last month, a Nigerian Twitter user whose profile name I can’t recall tweeted that Nigerians shouldn’t be too excited about Black Panther, and, permit me to paraphrase, referred to it as a commodity made for the consumption of African Americans.

Wakanda, the high-tech, fictional African country where King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to after the death of his father, is the centrepiece in Black Panther and shaped around an African core. There’s this argument: why was the film not entirely shot in Africa? But then, why should it? Star Wars is a space-themed franchise that has never been shot in space and the 1997 disaster film Titanic employed the use of scale models and CGI for the reconstruction of the RMS Titanic. Much of the principal photography of Black Panther was shot in South Korea and Atlanta.  Atlanta is the production base of Marvel Studios, so it makes logistic sense. Marzano Films revealed that aerial shots took place in South Africa, Zambia and Uganda while some other scenes from Wakanda were completed using digitally-created images.

Beyond the specificity of blackness, I think Black Panther ensures that we find positive strains of ourselves within its world, whether it’s the strength of the Dora Milaje or the courage of King T’Challa. Taken together, Black Panther belongs to everyone – and yet to no one.

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