The superhero Black Panther first appeared in July 1966, in the pages of Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic series. The Fantastic Four, like the Black Panther, were the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Romulus and Remus of the Marvel group. Ryan Coogler’s latest masterpiece is an adaptation of the comic series, starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa aka Black Panther.
In this column, I have chosen to focus on the particularly complex examination of the relationship of feminist theory and film while dissecting the transformative impact Black Panther arguably has had.
The following is a review done through a black feminist perspective utilizing works from people such as Bell Hooks, Rosan Gay, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Stineum etc. However, I have to point out that most of these critically acclaimed feminists fall under the sect of intersectional feminism.
While it seems it is in no way racist to direct a movie or write a book etc. with an all-white cast, it seems somehow fundamentally racist to do this with an all-black cast. Critics and viewers alike have projected that the only authentic version of any story in a movie is that featuring a predominantly white cast of actors from America, Europe or Australia.
A whole set of issues that challenges stereotypes opens up when suddenly there is visibility to a marginalized group of people in popular media – when previously they suffered from lack of representation.
The fact of the matter is that Black Panther was able to break these stereotypes and fully embrace Afrocentric themes throughout the movie.
Whatever it might be, the film industry is guilty. It has a history of dehumanizing African roles with the camera capturing them through the gaze of a colonizer. There is general disempowerment because to claim power as a black female is considered as dangerous.
Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, the main female actor in Black Panther said in an interview with Elle magazine: “Little girls watching it [Black Panther] will perhaps won’t be so afraid of their power. We have four women in the film who are powerful in very different ways and that is exciting. That is the thing that our young ones are watching.”
This statement alone is a huge shift from the role of a token black woman. Habitually, the black female role is one where she is a victim and stands strong in the storyline by not overcoming oppression but working within the system. When we talk about the strength of black women, we cannot ignore that there is a difference in upholding an oppressive system and transforming it.
One notable aspect of the movie that helped to transform female roles is by not having her be ‘the someone’ to another person. Her identity is not to be dictated or owned by a leading male character. Stirring romantic interest in a movie usually involves a woman relying on a man, in order to sustain it in the storyline.
In Black Panther, though head female warrior Okoye (played by Danai Gurira) is involved with W’Kabi – the leader of the male warriors (played by Daniel Kaluuya) – much of how their characters evolve still remains very much individualistic. When Okoye is given the choice to remain loyal to her country or to sacrifice her ideals for her love interest, without hesitation she chooses her country.
While STEM is a much-needed skill in modern society, very few people of colour go for a degree in science, technology, engineering and maths. In this movie, it is refreshing to be introduced to Black Panther’s little sister Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) who is the techno whiz kid helping make advances in her country’s technology. She also designs her brother’s suit that absorbs kinetic energy and gives him superpowers.
Shuri’s role is one of the first to help inspire future generations of marginalized kids of how technology could transform the future and how they can be a part of that.
The plot in Black Panther also debunks notions of what Africa is by reintroducing Afrofuturism – a concept that came about in the 1960s, made famous by Sun Ra – an African American jazz composer and poet known for his experimental music and “cosmic” philosophy.
Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism, and magic realism. Sun Ra claims to have been taken to the planet Saturn and shown in a vision of what the African continent could be. Black Panther is set in an advanced African civilization, thriving in isolation, untouched by war or colonialism. And this is the first alternative vision of the world Coogler explores.
In Coogler’s Black Panther, Wakanda is the fictional hidden techno-utopia that has gone through great lengths to securing its supply of vibranium – one of the rarest and most precious metals found in the Marvel Universe.
Wakanda’s strict policy on secrecy creates an ethical dilemma throughout Black Panther, with its custodians always wary that they could be exploited by the outside world – despite the fact that Wakanda is in a position to help alleviate poverty and oppression in the least developed African states.
According to black feminist writer Bell Hooks, due to the obsession with wealth and upward mobility, people of colour and black people find it extremely difficult to have a critique of capitalism. This is a driving force behind the dividing sides in the movie as well.
Black Panther provides a contemporary reflection on eternal questions of ethical tactics, black rage, militancy, tyranny, privilege and being accountable for the suffering of others.
The movie is also one of the first black films in recent history to show tribes (or gangs) not being at war with one another, but instead coming together for the better good of society. Traditionally Africans in film are depicted as “animals fighting over territory” with the sole purpose to kill for the sake of killing.
Throughout the movie, Black Panther continues to unite even when at war. He does not want to kill his adversary and tells him “because your people need you” and he is always looking for a peaceful solution. Black Panther is able to show compassion and empathy that has not been realized in black men and this helps to redefine “what it means to be a man” – which in the black community is not an easy space to navigate.
I don’t want to spoil who picks to side with which protagonist so you will have to see the movie to find out. If you are looking for a film that has a dynamic cast and a transformative story that does not shy away from politics or mythology, then Black Panther is a must see. Catch it at movie theaters now.