To say that Black Panther is a success would be a gross understatement. The film, which includes a predominantly Black cast, is set to make over 1 billion dollars in ticket sales and boast the most presale tickets sold of any Marvel film to date. Its Success has been in no small
part due to the incredible hype around the movie, especially among Black movie goers. Black community organizers and private citizens alike literally bought out theaters for the films opening night and raised money for schools and youth groups to take part in this experience. I say Black and not African-American because the phenomenon has filtered throughout Africa and the diaspora. Black people everywhere from Lagos to Sao Paulo are going to see the film in droves. Its popularity is about more than just the physical representations of Black bodies on celluloid. It is the first film with such overwhelming afro-futurist and pan-africanist themes ever produced with such a massive budget. There have been many critiques both celebrating and lambasting the political and social themes of the work, and although I have my own perspective of how the film handled these themes, what I would like to focus on is the revolutionary exploration of African thought, and aesthetics present in nearly every facet of this film.
Black Panther is a feast for the eyes. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler created a visual masterpiece, which was as aesthetically pleasing as it was well researched. Wakanda is African nation that is both technically advanced and isolated. The very few outside influences are brought in within the complete control of its government. There were no missionaries or colonists to push their ideologies on its citizens, nor were there any foreign merchants or business moghuls to manipulate or destabilize its economy. The world that they created was an Africa in miniature, incredibly diverse and free of european dominance and exploitation. Wakanda is a country drawing influences from around the continent, with a core aesthetic and worldview that draws from cultural commonalities shared by many African ethnic groups. The story is fictional, but all of the elements of the story draw from real cultures both living and historical.
Wakandas golden city is an amalgamation of African monumental Architecture. influences from the sudano-sahelian architecture of Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Ghana, the magnificent stone ruins of Zimbabwe, and the many ancient markets of west africa are all combined, reimagined and modernized to create a city; one remarkably guided by principles of pre-colonial african urban planning. Much of the Wakandan writing system emblazoned on signs, and banners across the city is either based on, or directly copied from Nsibidi an ideographic script used by the secret leopard society of the southern Igbo, Efik, Ekoi and Ibibio people of south east Nigeria.
Wakandan spirituality is focused on the eternal presence of the ancestors and the overwhelming reality of a physical and spiritual world, which is intertwined and inseparable. The living and the dead are in constant conversation a concept so deeply rooted in African religious thought that it is almost ubiquitous throughout the continent and the diaspora. T’challa undergoes ritual death and burial upon his coronation (this is real practice among the Eze priest kings of the Nri Igbo). He enters a spirit world dressed in white, the color of both the dead and the spirits among many of the hundreds of different Bantu speaking ethnicities across west central, east and southern africa. He meets his father who is wearing the symbol laden adinkra cloth used during the funerals of the asante people of Ghana. Through their conversation he gains both closure in his father's death and the affirmation of his destiny as king. The aesthetics of the scene rely heavily on African symbols of the afterlife, death and rebirth. They are used to relay important lessons concerning the value of ancestral wisdom, and the ongoing relationships with said ancestors in the maintenance of royal continuity and the stability of a nation. The layered symbolism in this scene is not an anomaly. Almost every costume choice in the film is deliberate. T’challa’s panther tooth coronation necklace is a real symbol of royal office used by the Igbo, and the panther tooth necklace that holds his suit is drawn directly from a myriad of examples seen throughout sub-saharan africa, most famously among the soldiers of the former Benin empire. The Wakandans wear garments from across the continent, both modern and traditional. Hausa “Alasho” and Tuareg “Tegelmust” turbans, Yoruba “Agbada” robes Fulani bhoylé earings. Himba “otzije” covered hairstyles, Sotho blankets and endless variations of wax print textiles and hand-woven cloths. The Dora Milaje, the kings female royal guards and ceremonial wives are based off of the legendary N’nomiton or Ahosi ( also known as the Dahomey amazons) their function being surprisingly similar to that of their historical counterparts. The king also sits on a council of male and female elders. Both elements of Wakandan government and military highlight little known characteristics of many African societies before the the infiltration of western gender roles. This society is built from the ground up, remixed and remastered to create a world that is a fantastic vision of an Africa that might have been.
There is a massive amount of pressure placed on the first of anything. This film had both the honor and the challenge of exposing people to an african world not bound by the tired cinematic tropes of unending poverty ,disease and corruption. Despite being a work of fiction the film bore the responsibility of representing the african continent in a way big budget hollywood films to date had never done before. The shear size of the continent and the depth of its history makes adequately depicting it as a whole over the course of a two hour film impossible. However, the creative team understanding the responsibility they had to the subject matter, created a film that consciously addressed this issue. As an educator and artist, I wholeheartedly believe that the beginnings of true learning comes not only from necessity but excitement for the subject matter. If Black Panther did one thing, it made many of us excited about Africa and what it represents. It is my hope that we take that excitement and use it to look deeper into the rich history of the continent. May we enjoy this film and also look beyond it, to the real past and present that unites us, so that together as children of the diaspora we may move into a real future.
– Stephen Hamilton