As I stated at the outset, it is the firmness of Wakandan cultural tradition that, different than the devastation wrought by the introduction of Europe into places like Nigeria that allows the center to hold.
This institutional clarity is illustrated by the refusal of M’Baku (Winston Duke) to accept the mantle of Black Panther to challenge Erik Killmonger’s ascension to the throne when it is offered to him by the women: the Queen Mother, Ramona (Angela Bassett), Nakia, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) when all of the men are ineffective. The center holds and efforts to destabilize it through murder, destruction of the Heart Shaped Herb, or refusal of the terms of ritual combat each fail against the dogged determination of these women characters and the acceptance of the men of that basis of authority.
The craft of these filmmakers is what allows them to pull this all off by buttressing these events with a view-scape of pure wonder. I have already extolled the virtues of this script and its productive complexity but this isn’t a novel and it is the sheet spectacle of it all that I believe has caused such a visceral reaction from viewers.
The blackness of these bodies against a Technicolor, high definition fantasy-scape is something we have never seen before. This film, in the creation of a black superhero, does everything that Django Unchained failed to accomplish in that the vehicle for the elevation of the beauty of blackness in Django was against the hideous backdrop of chattel slavery in the ante-bellum south. There is no such drab ugliness in the cinematography here. The grandeur of Warrior Falls exemplifies this. The black bodies adorned in the explosion of color and sound creates an alternative reality that charts new aesthetic territory while forcing us to consider our own relationship to what is beautiful.
I have remained particularly preoccupied with the juxtaposition of Nakia in her (Lupita Niyong’o) recognized black, natural beauty against that of the elder of the River Tribe who is dressed in the most vivid of greens and has his lip distended with a decorative plate. There has always been an undercurrent of (dare I admit it?) embarrassment at the display of forms of traditional African body mortification like scarification and stretching. Coogler will have none of it. These bodies, their color, their hair, their markings, are to be taken on their own terms and understood to be self-referentially beautiful outside of any need to deal with Western standards of the beautiful.
I have not being trying to avoid the star of the movie but felt it necessary to work through the ins and outs of his opponent before asserting the virtuosity of Chadwick Bozeman’s Black Panther. He accomplishes the almost impossible task of being regal and self-deprecating at the same time and the filmmakers allow him to obviate the need of a “black” James Bond by situating his sister as “Q” to the point that she comically alludes to the reference when equipping him by saying: “Its just like those old American movies Ba Ba (T’Chaka) used to watch!” and the director goes further by recreating the casino scene from Bond’s Skyfall.
The movie, in many ways is grand enough in its scope and ambition to be many things to many people and for me it represents a Afro-Futurist addendum to the closing moment of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth where the author writes:
So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it.
Humanity expects other things from us than this grotesque and generally obscene emulation.
If we want to transform Africa into a new Europe, America into a new Europe, then let us entrust the destinies of our countries to the Europeans. They will do a better job than the best of us.
But if we want humanity to take a step forward, if we want to take it to another level than the one where Europe has placed it, then we must innovate, we must be pioneers.
If we want to respond to the expectations of our peoples, we must look elsewhere besides Europe…
For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man.[ii]
For the two hours or more that we are in the theater, Wakanda can offer an opportunity to imagine this possibility of a new humanism. WAKANDA FOREVER!
Dr. Michael Sawyer is an Assistant Professor of Race, Ethnicity, and Migration and the Department of English at Colorado College. Instagram: msawyer1989.
[ii] Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press: 2004. 239.