A consideration of Marvel’s Black Panther by Mark Lyndersay.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a sensation and a success. The film has made money for its financers, brought acclaim to its actors and kindled a phenomenon of black pride that’s rarely been associated with a mainstream movie release.
One reason is the overwhelming presence of melanin throughout the blockbuster, but it’s not as if there haven’t been films with a lot of black people in them before this.
The whole Blaxploitation genre was born out the rather primal insight that people of colour would pay money to see themselves triumphant on the big screen, though that notion was never dignified with anything but the most moderate of budgets. The downtrodden heroes were always portrayed as flailing with mild success against an overwhelming engine of white domination.
That notion would eventually find purchase in a new generation of films and television shows which would place black people in leading roles, with the Wayans Brothers, Bill Cosby and the spinoffs of Normal Lear – including the Jeffersons – and Blade claiming front of mind consideration.
So along comes the alarmingly young Ryan Coogler, who has leaped in an astonishing hop, skip and jump from a tiny first film, an adept retelling of the real life murder of Oscar Grant at a trainstop (FruitVale Station) to earning the respect and support of Sylvester Stallone with Creed to, well, the stratosphere, it seems.
But all great stories are personal stories, and the best stories are so deeply felt, so generously human, that they let us into their world and allow us to participate in them.
Coogler has a rare gift for this, telling stories about families, about relationships and most compellingly, about fathers and their children.
Let me step away from Marvel’s big film to consider a smaller, more personal story about Africa.
When my father separated from my mother, I was seven. I did not understand then that he was doing what black men of that era yearned to do, to find themselves by traveling to a homeland they did not know.
So he left for Nigeria with his degree in theatre from Yale University and took up residence at the University of Ibadan.
I know very little about what he did there. I never went, though in one particularly humiliating experience, I was supposed to go, had a big farewell from my young peers at Tranquility Junior School and them my mother reconsidered. I had to return to school after that August vacation, having relocated nowhere beyond a trip to Bombshell Bay down the islands.
The chasm between my father and I was never bridged. On his return to Trinidad, after a few tentative and rather dramatically ineffectual efforts at meeting, our tenuous relationship would collapse completely.
What I know of Africa is what I heard from a former schoolteacher who spent some time there. He spoke of a beautiful country full of people who held former slaves in quiet contempt.
He recalled walking into a marketplace and hearing a word whispered among the sellers in a sussurus. He later learned that it loosely translated into “cane-cutter” and the prices of all the goods went up just for him.
I do know that my father was unable to take the money he earned in Africa with him when he left. There were attempts at trade deals that didn’t work out and ultimately, he returned to this country to build again.
I also know that his teachings had a significant impact on many involved in Nigerian theatre, though I could not honestly respond to a request for information from former students, now scholars, a decade after his death. I sent a photo I took when he showed up at a Christmas party at my house once.
I could tell them nothing about him, about his work, about his life after that evening when he packed his life and left his family forever.
So everything that Ryan Coogler has put on film as a professional director and writer has resonated with me.
The untidiness of Oscar Grant’s relationship with his family and its terminus in Fruitvale. Adonis Creed’s radiating anger about his father and efforts to simultaneously live up to his legend while denying it. The regal idiocy of the deceased King T’Chaka’s (John Kani) decision to leave a young child of his blood behind to fend for himself on the streets of Oakland.
Right from the start, Coogler anchors this expensive action film in a place he knows, a basketball court in low budget housing in Oakland, his hometown.
Who knows how many times he looked up in those skies and hoped to see a spaceship come to take him away to a more advanced civilisation?
Let’s consider the film Black Panther from Coogler’s perspective.
He’s responsible for a $200 million tentpole film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which has registered far more hits than misses.
He’s reponsible for shepherding the first major black character of power and presence in comics into cinema’s peculiar ‘reality.’
His work is going to be cross-examined by everyone who comes to see the film, comics fans, curious and doubtful white people, and his own people, demanding that most elusive of chimera, black pride.
He could reasonably expect that there would be an above-average amount of whitesplaining of his work, and even some backlash from us quadroons and octoroons, who have traditionally been saddled with providing an mollifying bridge between the worlds of white apologia and dynamic black enterprise.
I’ve got me a teaspoon of white and a tablespoon of Indian bubbling in my blood, but there’s never been any doubt when I stand in a line in immigration in any first world country that there’s only one thing I am.
Oh, and on top of all that, while this is a MCU film, he’s also working for Disney, with all the baggage that entails.
When director Ava Du Vernay (A Wrinkle in Time) tweeted about working next door to him to complete their films, the only thing I could wonder is what must it have been like for these two black talents to work on these two massive films for that company, knowing that they were carrying the weight of future careers for people of colour on their backs.
Looking at Black Panther, there is so much going on that teasing it all apart is almost impossible.
Coogler directs this film with a surprising lightness and wit, and he’s not above sidetracking the traditional superhero narrative to dally with a little 007 homage, having Shuri (Letitia Wright) kit T’Challa out with scientific gear like a super eager Q, directing an undercover sting operation like a classic Bond setup (staged in a simulacrum of the Macao casino in Skyfall) and introducing Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) as a fumbling Leiter to his suave brown Bond.
It’s almost as if he decided to spend a few minutes letting people know what a Bond film with Idris Elba would have looked like, right up until he blows open a wall to drag the film back into the world of superheroics.
As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman offers up a generous performance, a leading man willing to lay out a welcome mat of collaboration for his partners in making the film.
His inability to speak when Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) first appears on screen invites us to really consider this young woman, his deference to Okoye (Danai Gurira) barely readies us for her athletic skill and her intimidating presence leading the warrior Dora Milaje.
It’s a movie with conflict, deep seated, family conflict, but it’s less about villainy than it is about perspective.
M’Baku (Winston Duke), leads the Jabari, who have eschewed the dramatic technological improvements that the vibranium meteor has brought for a more earthy, brutal existence in the cold mountains of the country. He has no interest in the hovering beetles and flitting dragonflies that Wakandans fly around in. He is the first to challenge the status quo of the royal family.
The Black Panther’s Wakanda, the fullest realisation of a homeland that Africa’s diaspora could have hoped for, has survived and thrived by removing itself from the world. It is home to incredible scientific advances, but pretends to be a poor third world nation, and it has been this way for centuries.
Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) is a blood prince of that realm, the son of T’Chaka’s brother, cousin to T’Challa, a scion of royal blood raised in anger and desperation on the streets of America.
His fury and skill leads him to excel in the armed forces and then in Black Ops, and to ritually scar himself to count the kills be makes on his road back to Wakanda.
But he doesn’t want to rule the country as much as he wants its advanced technology and resources to arm a militant black cause against oppressors of the race.
T’Challa disagrees, though implicit in Killmonger’s denunciation of Wakanda’s position in the world is its criminal neglect of all the people of Africa pressed into slavery and segregated unmercifully in South Africa, sins that have all returned in the person of Killmonger.
In arguing his case for a new programme of intervention, Killmonger notes in triumph, “The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.”
That line isn’t there only for irony. As England discovered, conquering the world also means ruling it, and there are never enough people or a grip tight enough to accomplish that for long.
Coogler cuts a middle road through these issues in his film, leaving us with a T’Challa triumphant but chastened, willing to reveal some or perhaps all of the secrets his country has kept for generations.
To get there, he embroils Wakanda in a civil war of conscience with untidy outcomes and complicated intersections of reasoning.
But he may also be setting up a potent sequel for his film.
Differences in opinion about revealing vibranium set Wakandan against Wakandan. The last time superheroes squared off against each other in the MCU, it was over procedure, imminent Government control of the Avengers and trust issues regarding the Winter Soldier.
What happens when a world that could turn on Captain America discovers that the only source of vibranium is a mountain in Wakanda?
The last time colonisation happened; it was over the hope of gold and diamonds. Wakanda looks set to trigger a global confrontation that will make the events of Captain America: Civil War look like a scuffle in the schoolyard.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. His writing about technology is found at TechNewsTT and his photography is here. A long running series of photo essays, Local Lives, considers T&T culture and its Carnival. He has covered Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations for the last four decades. He writes a weekly column for NewsdayTT and contributes to Caribbean Beat.