By Megan Beauchamp
With a domestic total of approximately $623 million at the box office and $1.2 billion globally, it cannot be denied that Black Panther is a certified success, on its way to becoming the biggest solo superhero movie worldwide, according to Forbes. The movie has been out for five weeks, but its impact has already been cultivated into a widespread cultural moment.
Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, is a Marvel movie that showcases Africans and African Americans as the leading heroes. This focus of the narrative, rather than portrayal as an adornment in someone else’s story, is a welcome change to Hollywood cinema standards. With such positive representation, there was monumental excitement surrounding its release, especially in Black communities. But as the film continues to gain success, it seems to come under more critique.
In an Al Jazeera article, Kenyan author and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola details how the fictional country in Black Panther, Wakanda, is not reflective of the black unity that marketers had pushed. In fact, the movie is still a Western film. “The idea of Africa has been bleached of its complexity, corporatized, marketed and even sold back to Africa in a return to purity parable featuring an improbably sexy cast,” writes Nyabola.
Is this a valid point? Sure. Kenyans have been making movies exclusively in Africa for decades. Seeing Black people star in movies is nothing new in Nollywood, or ‘Nigerian Hollywood.’ Therefore, to see the tremendous buzz surround a movie that depicts a fictional African country must be puzzling for the people who actually inhabit places like Ethiopia or Kenya.
The problem persists that, in the United States, we are inundated with images of whiteness. It is in our programming of television, commercials, news, and film. Hollywood is an industry that is still dominated by white directors, producers, and actors.
Though we can note that this is changing somewhat, people of color still must fight to be recognized; it is an entirely different battle to be seen positively. Black Panther does both, and because the Marvel name is attached to it, the whole world can see this too. It delivers on a sort of self-esteem and racial pride on a global stage, one of which we haven’t seen before. In Nigeria, Nollywood films are the norm. Seeing blackness on the big screen is usual, but for Black Americans it’s rare.
It’s important to recognize that countries in Africa are still dealing with the fallout of colonialism, so there are struggles to be had all around, and one does not trivialize the other. However, it’s also a pretty tall task for a movie to be wholly authentic of all the diverse aspects of African culture, when the setting of Wakanda is fictional. If T’Challa had been the Black Panther of Nigeria or Libya, we could discuss the “realness” of the film more reasonably, because these are real places.
The triumphs of Black Panther do not negate the problems going on in Africa. They don’t even negate the problems still present in Black communities in America. Racism, misogyny, colorism, war, poverty; they all still exist after this movie. We can still celebrate the major step Black Panther made in Black representation, while still being active in social issues, and advocating for worthy causes.
What director Ryan Coogler did was bring a utopian vision of Africa to fruition, one that actually binds Africans and African Americans. Wakanda is symbolic of a country that we could have attained. A country with a history shaped sans colonialism and slave trade. It is imaginary, yes, but the sentiment of freedom and progressiveness remains.
What’s also important is that Black Panther has something for everyone. It’s a super-hero movie, it’s a female empowerment movie, it’s a Black pride movie, it’s a movie about respect and tradition; the list is endless. The themes it portrays means we’re making moves to finally tell diverse stories.