When it comes to Africa, movies are usually centred on poverty, war or corruption. However, with the advent of Marvel’s Black Panther, many are hopeful that trend will finally come to an end. For once, we have a movie not just about a hero but a king. However, beneath all the excitement there is an element of trepidation, especially within various African communities. After all, despite its African setting, this is an American film and there are concerns about cultural stereotypes and inaccuracies.
On the one hand, Black Panther’s kingdom is far from being the underdeveloped, backward country that we typically see in films set in Africa. In the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world. The flourishing (and futuristic) image of what many African nations might one day become. The setting replicates African architecture and the clothing has been carefully designed to reproduce the polychromic patterns of the continent’s textiles.
For most spectators, this version of African-ness proves plausible. However, for the more culturally conscious viewer, the African-ness portrayed here once again hides a pastiche of cultures and traditions whose distinctiveness seems not to be relevant in Marvel’s eyes.
The official language of Wakanda is IsiXhosa, which is spoken across South Africa and Zimbabwe. Both countries are located in southern Africa yet, in the Black Panther movie, Wakanda is located in East Africa. Therefore, it seems a curious choice to have a southern African language be the official language of an East African nation.
In Captain America Civil War, there’s a scene where Black Panther reconciles with his father King T’chaka played by John Kani. To add more heart to the scene, Kani said some words in his (real) native language, IsiXhosa. The idea was appreciated and carried on. So the decision to make isiXosa Wakanda’s official language was simply because it is the African language John Kani happens to speak. Had he been able to speak Swahili, then that would have become the movie’s official language. This would be akin to having a fictional state in the east coast of the US and having everyone there speak with a southern accent simply because one of the actors happens to come from Texas.
Going back to the African setting and clothing, references to different African cultures have been blended together to create the framework (a generalised one) on which to place all the characters. Would anybody notice that lip plates, typically found on Surmi and Mursi people of Ethiopia, are being used by people who are wearing Lothian blankets? It goes without saying that most spectators would recognise these as typical features of the African culture rather than a cultural mesh.
Ultimately, this is an American movie so perhaps it’s too much to expect informed choices. Black Panther was born from the pen of two Jewish men who in their attempt to dispel the stereotypes and value judgements of having an African superhero did nothing but reinforce them.
Nevertheless, in spite of these world building flaws, we have to give credit to the team behind this movie. The visuals look stunning, all of the footage we’ve seen thus far has very impressive and most early reviewers have sung nothing but praise for Black Panther. Los Angeles Times writer Jen Yamato described Black Panther as a “superhero movie about why representation and identity matters, and how tragic it is when those things are denied to people”. IndieWire critic David Ehrlinch wrote that “this is the first MCU film that has an actual sense of identity and history”.
Ultimately, it seems Black Panther represents a massive change in the superhero narrative. African and African American comic book fans will finally get to see a movie where they can see themselves as the protagonist. However, this film isn’t just for black people. The impressive pre-sales suggest superhero fans around the world are clamouring for something different.
PS: Are you one of those people looking for something different? Perhaps you’d like to see yourself on the front cover of Black Panther: