The Hollywood imagination has a troublesome relationship with Africa, perhaps best embodied by Leonardo di Caprioâ€™s jaded Rhodesian character Danny Archer in the 2006 film Blood Diamond, who muses wearily: â€œSometimes 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.â€ 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 â€œringsides to an ethnic cleansing lineâ€.
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 leadâ€™s emotional journey â€“ 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 peopleâ€™s stories.
Take that mindset with you into the cinema when you go watch Ryan Cooglerâ€™s Black Panther. I did â€“ and never was I so happy to be wrong. The film has been released to wide critical acclaim and deservedly so. It is fantastic, foremostÂ as a work of cinematic art. Its hero, the understated Chadwick Boseman, plays Tâ€™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 nonsenseÂ here, thank you very much. Heâ€™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 â€“ supported by brilliant performances from Lupita Nyongâ€™o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and Angela Bassett â€“ 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 â€“ though set in a fictional country, presumably somewhere in West Africa â€“ 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 Tâ€™Chaka, the father of Tâ€™Challa), to the fact that in Wakanda they speak a language any South African ought to understand (a flattened version of isiXhosa, at Kaniâ€™s insistence), to the little fashion details like how the queen of Wakanda wears isicholo, to the centrality of African religiosity in the heroâ€™s journey, to the exclamations of surprise or anguish â€“ as if our own black mothers were cast in the film, to hearing Babes Wodumoâ€™s gqom tunes, this fantastical setting is veryÂ South African. Even Bosemanâ€™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 â€“ 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 1980sâ€¦
The attitude of the film too, is instantly recognisable to me. Itâ€™s an Africa we want â€“ 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 â€“ a beautiful film made by diaspora Africans, for Africans everywhere. And we love it. If youâ€™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 imageÂ by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney.