The Hollywood imagination has a troublesome relationship with Africa, perhaps best embodied by Leonardo di Caprio’s jaded Rhodesian character Danny Archer in the 2006 film Blood Diamond, who muses wearily: “Sometimes I wonder… will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other? Then I look around and I realise… God left this place a long time ago.” Or perhaps in Jennifer Connelly, playing the cloying, do-good Maddy Bowen who gasps her way through the ruins of a West African civil war and genocide.
We could talk about that other Hollywood Africa film, Tears of the Sun (2003), and its “ringsides to an ethnic cleansing line”.
There is a certain, fixed Africa. It is distant, dusty, violent from end-to-end and utterly hopeless. Africans are either screaming, machete-wielding guerrillas, or screaming, helpless women and children. They are on-screen to die. They are there to give succour to the white lead’s emotional journey – whether it is the irredeemable colonialist or the well-meaning American foreign aid worker or journalist or soldier. For Hollywood, Africa is just a gritty tapestry for white people’s stories.
Take that mindset with you into the cinema when you go watch Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. I did – and never was I so happy to be wrong. The film has been released to wide critical acclaim and deservedly so. It is fantastic, foremost as a work of cinematic art. Its hero, the understated Chadwick Boseman, plays T’Challa, the king of the sci-fi kingdom Wakanda, who must traipse a painful personal journey to save his home from destruction. Michael B. Jordan plays the best Marvel villain in a long, long time. No CGI nonsense here, thank you very much. He’s believable, and another director could easily recut this film to make him the hero of the story. The power struggle between these two characters – supported by brilliant performances from Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and Angela Bassett – is the best Marvel story told in a long time, because Coogler has the space to dispense with the usual noise that makes the other films in the franchise a dreary slog.
It is in the detail that Wakanda feels like home – though set in a fictional country, presumably somewhere in West Africa – much of the particulars draw from South African cultures. In fact, watch Black Panther in a South African cinema with black people if you want the full enjoyment. From the majestic John Kani (who plays T’Chaka, the father of T’Challa), to the fact that in Wakanda they speak a language any South African ought to understand (a flattened version of isiXhosa, at Kani’s insistence), to the little fashion details like how the queen of Wakanda wears isicholo, to the centrality of African religiosity in the hero’s journey, to the exclamations of surprise or anguish – as if our own black mothers were cast in the film, to hearing Babes Wodumo’s gqom tunes, this fantastical setting is very South African. Even Boseman’s accent is a passable attempt at the Nelson Mandela voice. You know the voice.
Even in its villainy, there is an echo of a particularly South African fiend – the brutish Afrikaner mercenary (played by the indefatigable Andy Serkis) who destroys everything in his path with sadistic glee. This is a man who could easily have been brutalised in the Border War. Or in the townships during the troubles of the 1980s…
The attitude of the film too, is instantly recognisable to me. It’s an Africa we want – one which is concerned with its own well-being, one which is self-sufficient, and embraces its cultural diversity, and one which has little patience for bumbling colonisers.
Black Panther is well on its way to becoming an enormous success – a beautiful film made by diaspora Africans, for Africans everywhere. And we love it. If you’re black South African in particular, this will be an ecstatic moment for you. Enjoy.
Black Panther will be in cinemas from February 16.
Featured image by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney.