Me and ‘Black Panther’: part 2 — Wakanda

2019/01/29

So this certain woman Candace Owens has gained some notoriety in recent months for her turn from running an anti-Donald Trump website during his 2016 campaign to becoming one of the loudest Trumpets in the president’s corner. Leaving aside her motives for doing so (because I simply cannot figure them), this early August 2018 tweet came up:

“Inconvenient Truth: Slavery still goes on in Africa today. America was among the first countries that abolished the trade.

The present state of Africa proves that blacks in America are among the luckiest in the world.

Disagree? Tell me which African country you want to live in.”

Hoooo-boy. I could take this tweet apart for a whole dang post. But I will focus on one bit and answer her stupid question:

I want to live in an African nation that overcame tribalism (one of the continent’s only actual native-brewed weaknesses) and didn’t get duped into selling its then-present strength and future potential across the Atlantic into an even worse form of human slavery than that practiced in pre-colonial Africa.

I want that nation to have been untouched by the European colonial powers — powers that were only extant because a millennium of Christianity had finally muted their own tribalist bent.

I want that nation to be completely and utterly untainted by white supremacist ideals and uninfluenced by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

I want to live in Wakanda, Candace.

But you came here to read about me and “Black Panther,” so let’s get to it.

———

Candace, like most of us “lucky Americans” who saw the film, probably would’ve felt at home with the movie’s initial presentation of Africa. The first action scene of “Black Panther,” in which the hero makes swift work of a band of Boko Haram-esque militants in Nigeria, is a dark, brutal affair. While it’s cathartic to see these terrorists get theirs in a way that is uncommon both in the real world and onscreen, it’s also all too familiar — a depiction of an Africa in chaos. This is the continent as we here in America are used to seeing it.

It’s really smart of the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler to open his movie’s real-time narrative (the preceding scenes both being flashbacks) this way, because now the viewer is thoroughly set up for the counterpoint that the film will spend the rest of its running time presenting.

———

BOY: “Baba?”
FATHER: “Yes, son?”
BOY: “Tell me a story.”

It’s no accident that the initial story of Wakanda is told as a bedtime story to a young boy. That boy is us here in Black America, wanting to hear a story about home.

There’s a moment about 10 minutes later in the first act that really highlights this longing.

We see the Black Panther’s royal Talon Fighter soaring above an unspoiled Africa at dawn, with its raw, natural beauty, wildlife and people.

It’s the other side of Africa we expect and hope to see. It’s a wonderful contrast to the violent darkness seen in the previous scene and, in all truth, my heart ached as I watched these fleeting shots. It’s a look we aren’t often shown in our Western media that usually only focuses on poverty and chaos and tragedy overseas.

It indeed felt like home.

(Literally, my film professional friend Angela told me, because the movie was shot in suburban Atlanta, Ga.  But, of course, plates of sub-Saharan Africa were also included in those shots as well, so my point stands, too.)

Then T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) says that line: “This part never gets old.” And the Royal Talon Fighter flies into the thick rain forest cover to reveal the hidden capital city of Wakanda, a magnificently modern metropolis unrivaled on Earth.

wakanda

It’s the Africa we’ve never seen. The Africa that maybe we could have gotten, lived and thrived in, if not for the twin afflictions of the slave trade and colonialism.

It’s the fantasy of “what if.”

What if Europe had never decided in the Berlin Conference of 1884 to carve up the second largest continent in the world like a pizza pie for exploitation?

What if African people had realized the trap they were walking into when they sold rival tribes into chattel slavery across the sea, leaving themselves too depleted to resist the likes of Belgian King Leopold’s regime over the Congo that slaughtered an estimated 10 million and brutalized even more?

What if Africa had been allowed to truly become great?

“Black Panther” makes the dream visible.

street

Not only do we get to see that great approach shot of the high-tech city, but also tantalizing glimpses of everyday street life. It’s astounding how much of a world Coogler and his Oscar-winning production team led by Hannah Bleacher were able to build onscreen with only a few quick scenes — just shots, really. A lesser visionary might’ve belabored the point more conventionally (most likely through a classic outsider “viewpoint” character) but Coogler gets it done with a minimum of fuss, simply showing Wakandan culture at a glance and letting us gape at the screen long before any outside character does.

It’s one more way which Wakanda shows it’s not beholden to our Western frame of reference or approval.

———

As I was getting set to write this piece, though, a member of a Facebook group I’m active in made a point:

…[We could] consider Wakanda as an analogy for the United States, which has famously presented a face of isolation to the world, but never being truly separate from it.

I’m not sure I want to go as far as that analogy. But there are some key comparisons.

  • Neither have been conquered. Wakanda is clearly much older than our not-quite-250-year-old republic that only guaranteed full voting rights to all its citizens for the past 50. But both countries have managed to maintain their autonomy.
  • Neither have ever been truly isolated. Oh, sure, America has played at isolationism, to her detriment. But from its start, the nation has depended on foreign aid and trade. And, of course, now the United States has meddled in any number of other nation’s affairs, notwithstanding the isolationist leanings of the current president.
    Wakanda’s involvement in the outside word is murkier. But as Killmonger says, it has spies embedded worldwide, and at least one, Nakia, isn’t afraid to make “a bit of a mess” of outsiders’ affairs. To wit:
  • Both propose peace through strength. As a nation of warriors, Wakanda certainly seems to value power, even if it uses it only when absolutely necessary. The U.S. of A. can’t claim such lofty restraint, being an imperialist power like the rest of the West, but our nation tends to at least talk a little better game than many.
  • Both have competing visions of the nation and outside world in its citizenry. Wakanda has its traditionalists who would rather the nation remain hidden in plain sight (T’Chaka, Okoye, M’Baku) and others who would deal more directly with the outside world (Nakia, W’Kabi, N’Jadaka). It’s similar enough to America that even some conservatives attempted, in February and March 2018 think pieces, to say that Wakanda’s refusal to take in refugees made it more like Trumps’s America than not.
  • Both are threatened by a disruptor of its traditions.  Speaking of the 45th president, his election was either a failure of America’s traditions or a deft hijacking of them, and, regardless of your political wing, his actions in office have been that of a disruptor. Similarly, Erik Killmonger thoroughly subverts Wakanda’s tradition to gain power over the country and is enabled by a discontented plurality (the Border Tribe, not a majority), leaving the rest bound by honor to either serve or resist.
  • Both are fairly convinced of their own rightness. We see this clash early in the second act when both T’Challa and American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) state their intentions for dealing with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).

With all these parallels, it’s not hard to see why “Black Panther” resonated so well across so many audiences in the U.S. It was kind of our own story.

Still, Wakanda remains more fantasy than reality. But that fantasy bears more truth than meets the eye.

My lovely friend Latoya (@royaltycosplay on Instagram) had a great observation during  the Wakanda revelation scene: For her, the rolling hills and Wakandan rain forest is what everyone else sees of us black people on the outside. We’re beautiful, sure, if you’re into that sort of thing — but raw and primitive and messy, in their eyes.

But the true us — every ONE of us — is like the Golden City beneath the disguise the outside world sees. It, and we, are full of black excellence and innovation and glorious potential untold.

I agree entirely. Hold on to the Wakanda within.

———

The rest of the series:

Intro — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/01/22/me-and-black-panther-part-1-intro/

PART 3: Blackest Film Ever? — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/05/me-and-black-panther-part-3-blackest-film-ever/

PART 4: The Women — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/me-and-black-panther-part-4-the-women/

PART 5: Killmonger — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/16/me-and-black-panther-part-5-killmonger/

PART 6: The Score — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/me-and-black-panther-part-6-the-musical-score/

PART 7: Yes, this is a king of a picture — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/23/me-and-black-panther-part-7-black-panther-is-the-best-picture/

And an epilogue: My Oscar Screening Party 2019 — https://kharisampson.wordpress.com/2019/02/24/personal-oscar-screening-party-2019/

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