Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 25 February 2018

The Wokeness of Black Panther

The release of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther is a global phenomenon. A week after the film’s release on the cinema circuit, I finally had the opportunity to watch it, and it is a force to be reckoned with in the world of CGI-fuelled action blockbusters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hardly, if ever, fails to impress hard-core comic fans or first-time viewers. But is the hyped-up ‘wokeness’ of the film all it’s cracked up to be?

As with many complex questions, the answer is both yes and no.

Yes, because it is a damn good movie, full stop. The acting is great, the cinematography pleasing to the eye, Xhosa as the official language of the fictional Wakanda brings a patriotic smile to South Africans, and the bad guy is layered – as layered as a character can be in a movie filled with stunts and choreographed martial art fight sequences. Many have also highlighted the fact that black people are not stereotypically portrayed in the film. A good movie, with a largely black cast, does not have to tell a story of slavery, black oppression under institutionalised racist systems of government, be a bio-pic of a hip hop or R ’n B star of yesteryear, or portray black people as overly sexualised, aggressive, confrontational or simply slapstick comic relief.

Instead, the film presents us with black people as scientists, leaders of state concerned with the upliftment of their own people as well as others within the global community and, most of all, they let us understand that being dark-skinned and “nappy-haired” or bald is beautiful. Very few movies give black viewers positive affirmation without either shaming their blackness or reminding them of a painful past. In this film, we see a futuristic African state, one we can imagine if it were not for colonialism and regimes such as Apartheid, reducing black people to cheap, blue-collar labour.

On the issue of gender and sex, this movie ticks all the boxes skilfully as well. The MCU, in other titles such as The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron has been rightfully criticised for casting its main female protagonists, Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch, into secondary, eye candy, background roles. In this film, women are cast as powerful warriors with independent minds and as powerful positions as men.

But the film is not 100% as ‘woke’ as the hype would have us believe, no. The first issue is that Wakanda, an African nation never burdened by the shackles of colonialism, a country that is technologically advanced, where all are equal and where leaders are largely magnanimous – even when they make morally dubious decisions… is fantasy. So despite the inspirational message of what a well-governed, rich in natural resources African nation could be, no single African country is near this fantastic tale.

This is, of course, not a bad thing in itself, but it is difficult to base pride on an imagined, fantasy projection in a movie.

The reality is that all African nations have a history of colonialism at one point or the other and despite twentieth century liberation, many still reel in the historical backlash of this past. Very few, if any African countries, can boast about fully exploiting the rich natural resources this continent has been blessed with. Instead, this continent supplies the world, usually at below market-value prices, with resources that are enriched elsewhere. Further, many African governments are corrupt, inefficient or blatant dictatorships where women do not have equal rights and they occupy social and economic rungs of slaves.

So Wakanda should perhaps inform a vision of what we want Africa to be.

This newly inspired wokeness is also a bit annoying in that it suggests The Black Panther is the first superhero movie with a black hero as the central protagonist. That honour actually goes to the 1998 film, Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. It was a massive hit as a science fiction blockbuster, only eclipsed by The Matrix a year later.

More importantly, The Black Panther is by no means a new thing. The Black Panther carries the honour of being the world’s first mainstream black superhero, introduced to the American public by the deified comic writer and artist duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, in July 1966, in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four #52. So T’Challa and his black feline alter ego are 52 years old. The story arch that inspired the movie was Marvel Comics’ first foray into a continued comic storyline that appears across multiple issues, a story which could be condensed into a single plot, i.e. Marvel’s first graphic novel.

The Panther’s Rage ran from 1973 to 1976, and is an amazing comic series. As an absolute comic book geek, I have had the privilege of having read many Black Panther comics and graphic novels. I have read both the Panther’s first appearance and his pioneering graphic novel. They are fantastic and should be read by child and adult alike. Although fantastic, the reader is presented with an African, black superhero that is unrealistically wealthy, but achieves his amazing feats due to his intelligence, hard work, co-operation and care for others. He is an awesome role-model and is an entertaining read with masterful art across the decades of his graphic existence.

How many of us knew about him before the hyped-up traditional wear movie premieres? How many of us will go and source the comics this character is based on and read stories that are far more fantastic than what the movie would ever be? Would we go out and read already existent work and the work of up-and-coming artistic and writing talent in the comic genre?

My personal comic geekdom has reached a stage where I, in collaboration with an amazing young artist, are working on a comic title. My personal fear is that the audience will only become woke and appreciative of an authentic South African comic half a decade from now.

The question that matters and should be asked is, where was the wokeness all along, whilst the Black Panther, Luke Cage, Blade, Storm, Kwezi and other black superheroes were telling their stories? DM

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