The Cultural Reset that Black Panther Gave Us

As the world reels with the news of the passing of Black Panther star, Chadwick Boseman, it would be fitting to examine how his exemplary performance in the blockbuster movie set the scene for a major cultural reset.

I remember the period when Black Panther was released and more vividly the mania and hysteria with which it was received. Everyone was buzzing! Social media sites were full-out with Instagram fanatics striking out poses in African-print outfits and breaking down in the Olamide-inspired Shaku Shaku dance (for some reason). It was like nothing ever witnessed with any other Marvel movie.

There was a communal acceptance that an action movie by the gargantuan Marvel industry that had a black lead star and a predominantly black cast had been long overdue. More over, the black community felt the piercing impact even more.

Wakanda Forever!

I had just joined campus when the movie hit the cinema screens in Kenya. We did not know where Wakanda was but we kept on chanting of its everlasting reign and crossing our chests with our hands in mock solidarity. And even when we had watched it, there still was a magical touch to it that got you re-watching it again and again on Blu-Ray.

Seeing the late actor Chadwick Boseman walking majestically in his unique Black Panther suit and doling out invaluable quotes in a rather impressive African accent for an American actor brought chills down the spines of moviegoers. The portrayals of the supposed ruthless ‘villain’ Erik Killmonger and the histrionic character Shuri played by Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright respectively were some of the most compelling screenplay I had ever seen. The movie had a gripping plot and stellar performances from the talented cast undoubtedly.

Black Panther poster

Here was a film where the black man was adorned and feted in a spectacularly ostentatious way, where the female characters were far from ‘damsels in distress’ and where the cast was predominantly black so there could be no particular black character to be cruelly ejected in the first few minutes of the movie! A film that in spite of offering entertainment to many was a very important cultural reset that the society direly needed.

Breaking the Stereotype

The Black Panther movie could not have come at a better time, to be fair. After the controversial #OscarSoWhite period that rocked 2016 where there was a stark absence of black nominees, the following year saw a rise in black representation in nominations both on-screen and off-screen. Perhaps galvanized by this fact, the 2018 Oscars saw a remarkable thirteen black actors garnering nominations in different fields of film, most notably Jordan Peele, Daniel Kaluuya and Octavia Spencer.

The film Black Panther was such a big hit all across the globe that it became the first MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) to win an Academy Award. It was a sweepstakes for this film in terms of awards and accolades; an ode to the level of artistry and professionalism that went into producing it.

Perhaps galvanized by this fact, the 2018 Oscars saw a remarkable thirteen black actors garnering nominations in different fields of film, most notably Jordan Peele, Daniel Kaluuya and Octavia Spencer.

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The heavens have not always looked down so kindly to the black film industry, however. Most of the African-American representation in film was based either on a struggle-story, thug life or a tale of rags to riches.The first black nominee and winner of an Oscar award, Hattie McDaniel, played a house servant in Gone With the Wind in 1939. This kind of portrayal only went as far as reflecting the whites’ attitudes towards minorities rather than showing the varied experiences and lives of minorities.

The fight for proper black representation in film continues to date with milestones such as the film 12 Years a Slave taking home an Oscar for Best Picture worth celebrating in the black community. It is not expected that black representation will level off with white presence in the industry in a flash. It is going to be an arduous journey of attitude changes, public perception and policy overhauls. As New York Times wrote: “Race in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence.”

Race in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress

New York Times

To see a superhero movie with a black lead and cast was the turning point in how the black film industry is slowly but surely taking a grip into representation and acknowledgment.

The T’Challa Spirit

Black Panther’s impact was evidently seen off the screen. In the times preceding and succeeding its release, there was no holding back the excitement. Little black kids could finally see a superhero with curly and kinky black hair like theirs and with the same skin color. They had for so long been exposed to a hero with long flowing blond hair and white skin – the reset had happened with Black Panther. The film highlighted the chasm that underlies between society’s treatment of blacks and whites.

It offered a fresh outlook into the black experience, the vibrancy of black Wakanda, freedom and diversity and the lack of outside pressures and implications to blight it.

In Kenya, the rave was inexplicably experienced by everyone. While some of us detracted the accents highlighted in the film, the lauding of the film’s action-paced plot and character portrayal was universal. The markets overflowed with African-print clothes and t-shirts emblazoned with the trademark Wakanda Forever weeks before the movie was released. We felt like we were carved out of vibranium. If you had not seen Black Panther, you were as lame as one could get.

Chadwick Boseman gave the performance of his career on this film, in my opinion. Playing the character of T’Challa as the king of Wakanda and a victim of deposition by Erik Killmonger, he was essentially mirroring the character of a wise and daring protagonist. While the likes of Iron Man is extolled for his impressive arsenal of weaponized technology and the brevity of use, or Hulk for his brutish strength, or Spider-man for his stealth, T’Challa as Black Panther is remembered for his eloquence and for his fearless determination.

I enjoyed the countless words of wisdom he would utter and inexplicably turn them into quotes.

An African odyssey

It is no surprise that Black Panther was a celebration of culture and diversity. Not only did the African-American community feel acknowledged with a superhero but also the continent and countries of Africa felt that they had contributed to having the origin of the magical country of Wakanda. Save for the annoyance bred by the constant reminder that it was indeed not a real country, this was an audacious move to paint the continent as being able to thrive technologically as well.

The ensemble cast went above and beyond to portray the African culture as proudly as they could in their costuming and hair-dressing. The film’s head costume designer Ruth Carter shared that they drew inspiration from African countries such as Kenya, Namibia and South Africa in order to showcase the film’s array of looks as being diverse and beautiful as they are in real life. Most importantly, the natural hairstyles donned by the female characters which have for so long been derided by mainstream media were brazenly highlighted.

“We’re in a moment when people are feeling empowered about being black,” Carter says. “The hair helps communicate that.”

Okoye (Dania Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Ny’ongo) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Told from a posture of pride and power, Black Panther enables the black community abroad to connect with their African heritage in ways that no other film has been able to.

It also helped open up sensitive and much-needed conversations regarding freedom and emancipation. Wakanda was regarded as a secretive society that was unencumbered by outside forces and that thrived on their own resources without the help of anyone but themselves. The analogy to a pre-colonial Africa could not escape the eye of an attentive watcher. It begged me to question: What if Africa had continued to rely on its own plenteous resources without the help of colonialists? Would the continent have been able to sustain itself for millennia?

Black Panther was met with adoration by movie critics and watchers. With its outstanding actors, a vibrant and unique plot and the impact it had on society and culture, Black Panther paved its own path to meteoric success.

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Rest In Peace, Chadwick Boseman.

This is an inaugural piece about film as an art and how fitting it is to begin with such a esteemed movie. Opinions expressed in this piece are solely of the author and any queries regarding the subject can be forwarded via the Contact Menu.

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