From the iconography and energy of black America in the turmoil of the Sixties, the God Father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, crafted his spiritual Africa. In Wakanda, Marvel’s hyper-real African absolute monarchy, America can find the endangered spirit of its democratic Republic.
‘Black Panther’ is many things.
It’s the latest, beautifully executed model to emerge from the Marvel and Disney industrial production-line of CGI-heavy super hero movies. It’s a cinematic perfection of the second decade of the 21st century. A sleek Lincoln Futura restyled into the Batmobile, with an obsidian coat, silver and purple neon detailing. It glides into view loaded with hidden gadgets and instant, era-defining imagery.
It’s the moment when ‘Afrofuturism‘ has broken into the mainstream. An Instagram-ready subculture in Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom which has manifested in fashion and styling, mainly, Afrofuturism has some of its roots in the literary SF of Ishmael Reed, Samuel R Delany, and Octavia Butler. Other inspirations for the subculture are depictions from the Seventies and Eighties of crews of Afronauts – phaser weapons set on ‘Funk, Funk’ – in the music, lyrics, and stage costumes of Cameo, LaBelle, Sun Ra, and in the record sleeve art of Pedro (‘Captain Draw’) Bell and Overton Loyd for Bootsy Collins and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.
‘Black Panther’ is also the nearest thing that Marvel Studios have produced to a political manifesto. It’s the clearest statement of the film division’s liberal worldview and values, at least since ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ took a bold and unapologetic stand for civil liberties in the era of NSA surveillance (ah, remember when that was America’s biggest problem?)
Times having moved on, toxic masculinity and black lives that matter are now in focus in ‘Black Panther’. It’s more than a little mind-blowing to see Lupita Nyong’o as Wakandan superspy Nakia kicking the patriarchy’s ass, when in real life she’s one of the actors who has blown a whistle on Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. The #MeToo movement this has given rise to is now engulfing ‘development’ organisations as well as the film industry. Oxfam, Save the Children and the Red Cross, institutions run from former European colonies whose almost entirely white, almost entirely male management stand accused of turning blind eyes to the abuse of African women and kids by their white, male co-workers.
Is ‘Black Panther’ about Africa, though? Where is Wakanda? Or, rather, what versions of Africa and of African America are being hyper-stylised in this hyper-real hero narrative? Wakanda language is Xhosa, from South Africa, at any rate. Early on in the film, Wakanda clan leaders gather above a waterfall – it seems to be a quantum superimposition of The Great Rift Valley, Victoria Falls and the Reichenbach Falls – to witness T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) stripped of his Black Panther powers and facing anyone willing to challenge him for the throne, made vacant by his father’s assassination in ‘Captain America: Civil War’. When we see Wakandans in modishly tailored screen-printed silks combined with traditional body adornment and costumes – in styles covering every permutation of African culture from a Paris fashion week catwalk show, a Naroibi art gallery opening, market day in Timbuktu, to a Masai gathering in the desert – it’s clear that Wakanda is All Of Africa.
Wakanda is a technological Eldorado, a hidden mesa unspoiled by colonialism, drawing on James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon‘ among other things. This was a trope which Marvel decided, wisely perhaps, to sidestep in filming ‘Doctor Strange’ by locating the Ancient One’s academy in a very real modern-day Nepal. The difficulty of setting the clearly Tibetan-influenced mysticism of Steve Ditko’s original art for ‘Doctor Strange’ in Chinese-occupied Tibet would have been the choice of either enraging the Free Tibet movement or of casting ethic-Tibetan actors and enraging the Chinese government instead (China being a profit centre Disney and Marvel can ill-afford to alienate or ignore). ‘Black Panther’ the 2018 movie appeals to an East Asian movie market without getting sucked into China’s politics at all, being partly set in downtown Seoul, in unobjectionably democratic, visually dramatic South Korea.
The kingdom of Wakanda is a product of T’Challah’s evolving back story in Marvel comics, starting with Stan Lee’s audacious inversion of most American comic book reader’s expectations about Africa in the mid-Sixties. In the month that King T’Challa first appeared in ‘Fantastic Four’ #52, July 1966, Malawai became a republic, independent of British colonial rule; the King of Burundi was deposed while vacationing in Europe by his 18-year-old son, the Crown Prince. There were mutinies in Nigeria (army officers kidnapped and executed the President) and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 2000 soldiers rebelled in an unsuccessful bid to establish an independent state in Katanga, the main centre of the Congo region’s vast mineral wealth. DRC was still in the process of breaking its psychological ties to Belgium in the month that Black Panther first appeared in Marvel comics. Along with other Congolese cities formally adopting African names, the capital became Kinshasa, having been established as Leopoldville after the Belgian king.
More recently in Marvel’s continuity, for a while King T’Challa lived in New York. Taking over as the protector of Hell’s Kitchen for Daredevil, he adopted the identity of Mr Okonkwo, an immigrant to America from the DRC, and ran a diner for fellow working class Africans. While it’s common for African chiefs to adopt commoner’s clothing for a period in their youth (so they can understand their subjects better while they party at university) in T’Challa’s case it seemed to be an opportunity for him to gain a better insight into his own and other people’s basic humanity.
Black Panther was created in 1966 by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, who – like another of his co-creations, Captain America – had fought the Nazis in WWII. Kirby loved regaling the other Marvel creators in the “bullpen” with stories about his time in Europe killing fascists. (In ‘We Told You So: Comics as Art‘ the cartoonist Stan Sakai recalls meeting Kirby at a publisher’s party in the Eighties. “I met Jack many times after that, and he always told his war stories. They were different stories, but it always ended with him killing four Nazis. He hated Nazis”).
In ‘Fantastic Four’ #52 they retold a familiar pulp story, the hunter becomes the hunted, but with an intriguing post-Imperial spin.