for Daniel J. Porter, M.Eng and Jesse R. Guscott, MD
Africa.Birthplace of us all. Ancestral home of the African diaspora. The land of dreams and sometimes nightmares. Ancient giant beasts—some with long necks, some with ivory and tusks, some with armoured skins, others as fast as automobiles. Scorching sun. Severe draughts. Periodic mass migrations of humans and animals for water. Beautiful night skies rich with stars, gentle sea breezes, grasslands, mountains, poverty, promise, war and sometimes forgiveness. Africa pulls at the imagination and sometimes tears it.
Years ago I went to Zambia to teach technical English at a trades college. I went there because as a youth I had read John Buchan’s Prester John, the story of a mythical African king. I went there because I had a friendship with Mr. Tom Boafo, an Ashanti chief from Ghana. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler went there to find home.
I didn’t always see the harmony and respect central to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, not consistently anyway. The place was more paradoxical and multifaceted to be any one thing, but, to be fair, Coogler is making a movie not putting together a practical plan for the construction of a new world.
He conjures a beautiful image of a possible future in which the characters possess beyond-human-powers in strength and endurance, but exercise their true strength in kindness and forgiveness. If the superpower of Wonder Woman is her capacity to love, the superpower of King T’Challa (Black Panther) is his capacity for wisdom.
A mix of high-tech and low-tech, the best fight scenes in Wakanda are with spear and shield. According to Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, Feb. 6, 2018:
Life in Wakanda is at once urban and rural, futuristic and traditional, technological and mystical. Spaceships zoom over soaring buildings with thatched tops; a hover train zips over a market with hanging woven baskets.
As one critic notes,
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism. Adam Serwer in The Atlantic (Feb. 21, 2018)
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther begins where magic always begins—once upon a time.
Tell me a story, baba.
What story, my son?
And so the story begins.
Millions of years ago, a meteorite made of vibranium, the strongest substance in the universe, struck the continent of Africa, affecting the plant life around it. And when the time of men came, five tribes settled on it and called it Wakanda. The tribes lived in constant war with each other until a warrior shaman received a vision from the panther goddess Bast, who led him to the Heart-Shaped Herb, a plant that granted him superhuman strength, speed, and instincts. The warrior became king and the first Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda.
One of the remarkable features of Coogler’s vision is the strength of women in his utopia—“scientific geniuses and deadly warriors and altruistic spies and majestic queens…” That’s his tribe, he says in The Rolling Stone (Feb. 26, 2018). “My wife is a black woman who’s incredibly strong and smart – and the more I get out of her way, the better my life becomes. I thought that’s one of the things that makes T’Challa (Black Panther) brilliant. He knows how to get out of the way of amazing women in his life.”
There are certainly amazing women in the movie, which include the very beautiful spy Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, the cheeky and very gifted Shuri (Letitia Wright), the warrior-protector Danai Gurira, and Black Panther’s mother Angela Bassett. For me, Shuri, so tech-savvy and peppy, steals the show. It’s the women who save Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) when he can’t save himself.
Even the villains are nuanced. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) driven by anger and resentment understandably seeks revenge. His critique—that Wakandans could have rescued the colonized Africans of the Americas, but put the security of their peaceful world first—is not entirely unjustified. They abandoned them, “leaving them poor, traditionless, and playing basketball on concrete lots” (Stuart Klawans, The Nation, Feb. 22, 2018).
Towards the end of his story, Ryan Coogler has Black Panther speak for us all.
Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t have said it any better.