In Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Zimbabwean ex-mercenary utters a line that became one of those oft-heard film quotes. As a means of explaining the way things work – or don’t work – on the continent, he tells co-star Jennifer Connelly, “TIA.” When she doesn’t get his homemade-acronym the first time around, he spells it out: “This. Is. Africa.” It may have taken over a decade, but you could say Black Panther is the cinematic blockbuster retort to that. A long-awaited clap-back in the form of a roar.
This is Africa. Yes, it’s a heightened, idealized version of it — where vibranium, not diamonds — is the major resource. Yes, it’s called Wakanda, and is a place built out of the pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic books. Yes, it exists within the fictional Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yes, most of it was filmed in Atlanta in the US. But make no mistake. This. Is. Africa.
This is Africa – a multifaceted, exhilarating place that hardly gets the kudos it deserves onscreen. Not until now, not until Black Panther. As a South African, I was giddy with little squeals of excitement each time I heard Xhosa being spoken by the characters or recognized an item of clothing. It’s because for so long, when Africa has been represented onscreen, a simplistic view has usually been shown. Poverty over potency. When attempts have been made to change the portrayal of Africa onscreen, more often than not, shortcuts are usually taken. I will love Morgan Freeman forever, but even he battled with pronouncing the Rolihlahla of Nelson Mandela’s name in Invictus. In Black Panther, the clicks and accents of Xhosa are there. The effort to be authentic is there. It’s in the “eish” that Lupita Nyong’o utters when T’Challa interferes in her mission. It’s in the “Nkosi” uttered by the women in moments of hardship.
It’s in the Basotho blankets that are held up as shields in battle. It’s in the gold and silver Ndebele neckrings the Dora Milaje wear. It’s in the casting of legendary local actors John Kani and Connie Chiume as elders.
In director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, this is Africa. Where scientists and shamans live side by side; where spiritualism and technology can co-exist.
Where world music’s elder statesman Baaba Maal and the Gqom Queen Babes Wodumo share space on the music credits. Where trap music can play in the background of one scene, and then traditional drum-beating in the foreground of another. Where Kendrick Lamar can curate songs and Ludwig Göransson can compose them.
This is Africa – where women in front of the screen are just as important as any man, but not at the cost of their femininity. From the moment Angela Bassett, as T’Challa’s mother, enters the frame in her regal white headdress, I thought of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, with her stature and formidability. But also her fallibility and devotion. [Side note: why have we never seen Bassett play Madikizela-Mandela?] From the instant we meet Lupita N’yong’o’s spy Nakia, we know she is her own force to be reckoned with, beyond the love she has for Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa. And Danai Gurira’s Okoye fights and wields weapons as deftly as any army general, but she can also throw her wig in combat when the spirit moves her.
This is Africa – where Letitia Wright’s teenage Shuri, with her cheeky sense of humour, can act childish, but still knows how to program the hell out of a suit. A younger, way more stylish Alfred or Q to Boseman, if you will, but for a new generation of young girls to look up to.
This is Africa – where women behind the screen are important too. Debbie Berman, who was born in Johannesburg, edited the film, after working on Spider Man: Homecoming.
It goes without saying that Black Panther has been the most anticipated film of 2018, with pre-sale box office tickets breaking records all over the world. There is a richness to the interviews the cast members and director Coogler have been giving. There’s an electricity flowing through this film that is unlike any other.
Leaving the cinema after seeing Black Panther at a press screening, I felt the energy coursing through my veins – like I had just taken some of the heart-shaped herb that gives T’Challa his powers. That’s what happens when you see something so exhilarating, fantasy grounded in the real, on the big screen. An experience that leaves you thrilled for what you’ve just seen unfold in front of your eyes – and ears – and for what comes next. An experience that makes you proud to say, “This. Is. Africa.”
Pic from Entertainment Weekly.