I took a trip to Wakanda on Sunday night, and along the way, I stumbled into Ghana.
Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and in this universe, all roads lead to Wakanda. In Wakanda, Marvel has its own Gotham City. Except, in this case, the superhero’s fictional home has a secret identity too.
Black Panther is a film about T’Challa, a prince who becomes king and the superhero Black Panther of Wakanda, after his father’s death. Wakanda is a Utopian nation in East Africa and is the most technologically advanced nation in the world, but it masks itself from the world by posing as a Third World country. However, Wakanda’s isolationist policies culminate into a ritual combat and an ideological war between Black Panther and the villain, Killmonger.
Black Panther is written and directed by 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, and it features an all-star Black cast that includes Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyongo, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and two Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis. The acting is really good in this film, but considering the quality of the cast, that isn’t surprising. I didn’t think, however, that Ryan Coogler could direct a story that transcends the superhero genre. Black Panther is an ambitious, emotional, entertaining movie. And it’s the best Marvel film yet.
I realized how special Black Panther was a little over 10 minutes into the movie when the movie theatre echoed with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal’s lovely voice over a scene featuring Lupita Nyong’o’s character looking unashamedly African with what we Ghanaians call a duku (head-tie) over her head.
Not long after that, in what is probably the most beautiful scene in the entire movie, I saw what looked like hundreds of people made up of real, distinct African tribes at T’Challa’s coronation ceremony in Wakanda. I saw what looked like members of the Massai people next to the Sesotho people. I saw what looked like the Himba people next to Hausa people. I saw what looked like the Yoruba people next to the Akan people—my people.
But what’s been on my mind most since I left the movie theatre on Sunday night is the Kimoyo beads the Wakandans wear on their wrists. In the film, Kimoyo beads work just like they do in the comic books; they are technologically advanced devices for communication. Marvel is smart to feature a common fashion item for Africans in that way. But that isn’t why I was thinking about the Kimoyo beads.
I was thinking about the Kimoyo beads because last Friday, two nights before I watched the film, I found my mom rushing from one side of the home to the other. I asked her what was wrong. And she raised her face toward me—looking frightened, she told me she couldn’t find the beads her mom passed on to her before she passed away. My mom’s mom received the beads from her own mom too, and they are the only things my mom has left of her mom. When she found the beads, she held them tightly in her hands, and I stared at her intently, understanding what was happening: my mom was holding on to her ancestry. Later that night, I stared at the Dashikis in my closet and I held my beads—the ones my mom had given me—tightly in my hands, and I always will.
I think that’s one of the reasons why Black Panther resonates with so many Black people. For many Black people, the movie rediscovers a picture of Africa—a picture of ancestors—they’ve lost. For Africans like me, the movie reminds me to hold on to what I haven’t lost from Ghana—what I still hold on to—more tightly.
Black Panther isn’t a perfect film, though. In fact, it could be harmful if it is not received with discernment. Have you noticed that I’ve dedicated most of my words appreciating the dukus, African tribes, and beads featured in the film? This is because I think the movie’s images are more effective and more healthy than its message.
The major theme in the movie is Wakanda’s role or lack thereof in using their resources to help their less fortunate kinsmen in other African nations and Black people everywhere, especially in America. A difference of opinion on this pits the film’s titular hero and villain against each other and parallels some of the longstanding ideological conflicts between Black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I really enjoyed that about the film.
However, at the end of the film, the film takes the position—the villain’s position, actually—that Black people everywhere are kinsmen and thus uniquely responsible to each other. That sounds a lot like the Pan-African concept within the Black Power movement. That concept was unhelpful when Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, developed it in the mid-twentieth century and it is just as harmful today.
What do I necessarily have in common with a Jamaican or a member of the Massai people? Are they really my brothers because we share the same skin color? Are they my brothers because perhaps we may have a common ancestor from many centuries or a millennia ago? If so, are White people not my brothers too? Do we not all share a common ancestor in Adam?
If we unite ourselves strictly with people who look like us, we will divide ourselves from people who do not look like us. When White people think this way, it culminates into White supremacy. And we Black people are no better than White people, this type of thinking can just as easily lead to Black supremacy.
In fact, in the film, Martin Freeman’s American character, is referred to as on a number of occasions as “colonizer.” It was intended as just cheap humor, but I wasn’t amused. It bothered me for a couple of reasons: Americans did not colonize any nation in Africa. And if Americans had, in fact, colonized a nation in Africa, no single White person today would be responsible for it. But you see, this is the problem with identifying ourselves and others strictly by their skin color. In doing so, we will hold people responsible for actions they did not commit. Black Americans especially, who have suffered over the last centuries over this type of thinking, shouldn’t return the favor.
But despite the problems I have with the film’s themes, the film is nearly flawless otherwise. It’s my favorite Marvel film so far. And I give it a 9/10. Go watch it.
This first appeared on Samuel’s blog, Slow to Write