Wednesday, March 7, 2018 9:35 pm
– Random notes on the film, ‘Black Panther,’ that recently premiered in Lagos
By Femi Olugbile
It was going to be a family occasion of sorts. Ay was in on holiday from Glasgow with his fiancée. Mr K had been pulled from Boarding School for the day. And Mayowa – Mr Fixit – he had got the tickets early to beat the anticipated crush.
As everyone settled down with popcorn and 3-D goggles, you were reminded of a Sunday, after Church, many years ago, when Baba ‘Jebu startled everyone in the household at Idiaraba by announcing that he was going to take his children to watch ‘Ten Commandments’ at Glover Hall. You had only a vague sense of where and what Glover Hall was. You remembered passing by the place once when you were being taken to the ‘Bata’store on Broad Street to buy new school shoes.
There was excitement beyond measure as you piled into the old Volkswagen beetle. The excitement mounted palpably as you crossed Carter Bridge and approached your destination.
It had gone on to be an experience that you would remember long after the old man, with whom you had a complicated relationship, had passed on to glory. You would remember particularly the line of the dejected Pharaoh at the denouement, at which point your father, sitting beside you, had nodded his head solemnly so you could see, and intoned ‘Hmmm’ for emphasis. The scene was inextricably linked to the spiritual roots he was trying to plant deep in his next generation. ‘Moses’ God is God’.
Black Panther, to be sure, was no Ten Commandments, nor did it purport to be. Its antecedents did not derive from a heavy tome like the Bible, or the Torah. It came rather from the light-hearted fantasy tradition of Marvel comics – a genre of pictorial yarns designed to titillate the imagination of ten-year olds, and hardly anything more.
Why was Black Panther causing such ripples – not just in Nigeria, but in the rest of Africa, as well as in Europe and America? What was it about a fantasy tale for children that was generating such excitement among the adult public?
And it was not just in the cinemas. No! Recently on the football pitch, after scoring a goal for Manchester United, Jesse Lingard was pictured sharing a crossed-armed ‘Wakanda Forever’ salute with his team mate, Paul Pogba. On another occasion, at the NBA slam-dunk championship, the lead actor in the film –Chadwick Bosemanhanded over a Black Panther mask to Victor Oladipo – the Indiana Pacers star. Oladipo accepted the mask with a ‘Wakanda Forever’ salute, put it on, and proceeded at a run to the basket, to execute the most memorable dunk of the night. There were pictures in the social media of fanatics wearing the uniform of Wakanda female warriors – the Dora Milaje- to Church. Watching a film in 3-D always gave you the eerie feeling of being inside the story yourself.
The comic book story that was ‘Black Panther’was very different from the comic book stories that the world was all too familiar with. The ‘Marvel’ comic story was invariably of a superhero – white, male, such as Thor or Superman, who was put on earth from somewhere else, or who was deliberately or accidentally ‘created’ by the American military, such as Captain America. The intention of the superhero was to defend ‘Civilization’ – meaning the United State of America, from its enemies. A more recent innovation in the genre, Wonderwoman, broke the white male superhero mould and introduced the white female superhero. But it was still a ‘white’ affair.
Black Panther departed from the tradition entirely. The story was proudly Afrocentric, as was the hero. The concern was about Africa, and one African nation, albeit imaginary. America was largely ignored, except as backdrop. Nearly all the cast of the film were black. And – wonder of wonders, it was not a film made largely for a ‘black’ audience, but for the global mainstream. In that regard, it was unprecedented in the breadth of its ambition, and in its audacity.
Many Africans – especially in the diaspora, had waited all their lives to see a film with a black superhero and a narrative of an Africa that was not about famine and white helpers braving the odds to bail out Africans from the depths of misery and disease. In the history of movies, no film – meant for a global audience, had assembled such a cast of big-name black characters and allowed them to take such exclusive charge of the action. It was a work of Art immense with mental liberation, even before its opening frame.
It was also a film of many layers, juggling themes that occupied the current attention of humanity –the place of women, the role of Colonialism, the wealth of Africa, the world view of ‘untainted’ indigenous Africa vis a vis a black America consumed with anger and resentment. Put into the mix was the reality of Donald Trump’s America, including a President who described African countries as ‘shit-hole’ nations.
A major part of the unspoken story of Wakanda was what the African reality might have been without the advent of colonization. Indeed, ‘white’ people were referred to by the people of the nation of Wakanda, deliberately, and apparently without offense, as ‘colonizers’.
The story was simple, but the issues were loaded. Prince T’Challa’s father was killed in a bombing incident. T’Chala thenceforth inherited the mantle, even if he had to fight for it, literally and brutally.
Wakanda had a possession that was both its secret wealth and its secret weapon. This was Vibranium – a precious metal available abundantly in its domain. Vibranium was more precious than diamonds, more valuable than uranium. It had unique properties of medical healing and generation of power.
Of course, ‘bad men’ who were aware of the secret were trying by foul means to get their hands on the treasure. A gun-runner eager to give the secret to the CIA. A brilliant African-American trained in Science at MIT, and in the US Army in the art of killing people. In the latter exertion, he was a past master, a veritable killing machine..
The real ‘bad man’ of Black Panther was the African-American, the exemplar of a different ‘black’ world view. It was the Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X debate, but worse – much worse. The question was posed – if not in so many words:
If we have such power, why be quiet about it? Why be subtle about it? Why don’t we take it, and use it, even if it means burning down the world? For slavery, for the afflictions of the KKK, for Donald Trump, for all the hopelessness of the black ghetto?
The answers to the unasked questions were not as obvious as they might look at first inspection.
The Vibranium story itself was not as remote from possibility as it might look at first inspection. There were minerals in Africa so precious the modern way of life would not be sustainable if they could not be had. Cell phones required a mineral that came out of the Congo.
Unfortunately, the situation of the Congo was the best exemplar of what, in real life, African nations had done with their great wealth. They had not only squandered it. They had allowed it to consume them. Their ‘Vibranium’ had, by and large, been a curse, and not a blessing to the masses of the people. The people of the Congo – the most naturally endowed of nations, were among the most impoverished, most oppressed, most hopeless people on earth. From Mobutu Sese Seko to the elder Kabila, to the young and always nattily attired Kabila, to the various war lords who owned vast troves of wealth stashed away in France and Belgium and London and the Cayman Islands, the story of their lives was one of a harsh and relentless oppression by their own people who cared not a hoot about them.It was a sad story that seemed to add a compelling logic to the unspoken argument of the ‘Bad Man’ in Black Panther.
If we have such power, why don’t we take it and burn down the world? Not just for Trump and the KKK and Black Lives Matter, but also for Mobutu and Kabila Senior and Kabila Junior and countless other rude monstrosities that nature or bad fortune has inflicted on Africa. Why should we care? Why indeed?
There was a mention of dear old Sambisa Forest, and it almost made the Nigerian heart glow with pride, until it remembered Boko Haram and ‘Bring Back Our Girls’. In a scene where the anti-hero went to steal a Nakanda artefact from the British Museum, there was a lovely little exchange with a curator who tried to halt the heist.
‘How do you think your ancestors got these?’ asked the thief. The white curator was speechless.
It was, of course, the question at the very heart of ‘Colonization’, the question the British, the French and the other ‘Colonizers’ would find difficult to answer, whether in reference to the Benin mask or the Egyptian obelisk their ancestors had stolen from conquered territories.
In the end, King T’Chala stood at a cross-roads, like much of Africa. He was not quite sure what he stood for, or how to approach the future. Should he look inwards, closing the door as before, or should he open up to the world, and risk being swallowed up? His ex-girlfriend, and perhaps soon-to-be-queen – Nakia – played by a beautiful, strong, and – yes, very sexy Lupita Nyong’o, had ambitious, one-world ideas.
What was the future of the nation of Wakanda, you were asking yourself, as you approached the end of this unique film experience. And indeed, what was the future of Africa, with all its endowments, and its possibilities, and its heavy baggage of past and present woes? Could there truly be a New Order? Beyond fantasy and superheroes, could Africa begin to allow its people and its Wakandas to grow and flourish, out of the suffocating embrace of thieving ‘strong-men’, religious and tribal bigots, and internal ‘Colonizers’?
There would surely be a follow-up to Black Panther.
The seeds of the next phase of the Wakanda story were left in the hanging threads of the little boy playing basketball in the black tenement, who could be the son of the angry ‘Bad Man’. There was, too, the alluring possibility of a future Queen Nakia giving animpetus to the reign of a dithering and ambivalent sovereign and driving it to centre-stage.
As the crowd dispersed into the warmth of the Sunday evening in Lagos, harsh reality took over, once again. Honking horns, and cars wrongly parked on both sides of the road. Small heaps of refuse here and there among the glittering edifices on the Lekki Peninsula, and the aroma of chicken suya roasting on coal-fired skewers tended by a man in a long robe.
• Dr Femi Olugbile, is a psychiatrist, an award winning novelist and former Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Health