A Portion of Pan-Africanism in “Black Panther”

Black Panther is a movie to be reckoned with. It carries its own controversies and debate, as any movie will and good movies should. Some people are of the opinion that the mashup of cultural clothing and the presence of particular characters was annoying. As an African, having grown both on and outside of the continent, I loved “Black Panther” for most of the same reason they may have been irritated. I would like to highlight the Pan-Africanism in clothing, the presence of Klaue and the CIA agent, then how it relates to the world.

The fashion and the clothing, the representation and homage to different cultures was actually well-thought-out by the costume designer and correlates with the depiction of Wakanda in the new version of comics and where it is supposed to be situated.

In relation to Pan-Africanism, the decision to blur the lines whilst still respectfully upholding the dignity of every culture shows the fluidity that exists and would have existed in an uncolonised African peoples (which again is where Wakanda is situated). This exchange of clothing and culture already exists and is the reason why you can find folks in Nairobi, Kenya wearing an Agbada with Maasai beads. Another common example are the infamous “What are those?” leather sandals that have become the stereotype of the ‘African uncle’. It presents a lens of Pan-Africanism that goes beyond the political discussion, yet at the same time makes a political statement of how different cultures come together and create some phenomenal attires.

Also present in the clothing is the evolution of culture. As with any other place there is a sense of how to upgrade, and for lack of a better word, slay in the clothing you wear. The presentation of these attires showed how they can be incorporated into daily attire. They have presented how they can be worn with respect, pride and dignity, while also transforming to appear as something else. The warriors led by W’Kabi with the Basotho blankets, or Angela Basset’s crown stemming from the ceremonial headgear for a married woman in South Africa, or the inclusion of purple (a royal color and possibly homage to Orishaa Oya) for Zuri to show affiliation to royalty and to their capability of facilitating the life of the Black Panther. All these examples show clear, intentional and thought out choices, unlike Louis Vuitton’s disregard for, and disrespectful treatment of, the Maasai culture.

The discussion on progress is fascinating and the desire to see African nations is well said, Black Panther shows it well practiced. It might not have it spot on, but it definitely presents an image of what afrofuturism could look like. An actual image on a wide scale, and makes the discussion on how to make it happen a slightly easier conversation because there is a common image to refer to.

As for the representation of the continent in a positive image. It is funny that there is so much hype about this, particularly seeing as much as there is recognition of the issues each nation faces, there are particular ways in which they envision their community’s progress. It is good that it was not ‘some place in Africa’ as depicted in the Avengers, or some poverty stricken continent that needed saving. As should be fair seeing as in the presentation of the USA there is the omission of the dire problems it faces: poverty, violence and a uniquely incomprehensible system. However, “Black Panther” did not entirely cop out and make a completely imaginary space. It still recognized the agricultural roots of many African communities, and still recognized the weapons they created. To a certain extent it also recognized and complicated the presentation of what it means to be of African descent. The question “Who are you?” and the depiction of the abandonment of the diaspora by those on the continent who believe they know best and neglect the institutions of colonialism that still hold true versus the diaspora who are detached physically from the African continent, complex and need more unpacking like their counterparts.

In the production of this movie, I, among many others, have also appreciated the manner in which the movie has included a whole range of Africans. Blurring the idea of what it means to be African and to participate in such an installation. Letitia Wright, a Guyanese actress, Winston Duke, a Tobagonian actor, Florence Kasumba, a German-Ugandan actress. It is an opportunity for Africans who value Pan-Africanism to reflect on who we have excluded either knowingly or unknowingly from an important and long overdue conversation. The presence of this collaboration is a call in to all those who identify, it is a reminder that a collaboration of this caliber, a conversation of this height existed and can exist. Look no further than W.E.B du Bois, Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Leopold Senghor and Frantz Fanon (acknowledging these are all male figures, which highlights the important discussion of the omission of women figures during this period).

The presence of the Afrikaner, Klaue, was for me rather crucial in representing the issue and involvement of the Afrikaner community in the exploitation of resources, under the guise of being a national of an African country but their affiliation and intentions lying elsewhere. Throughout his presence in the movie Klaue never once regarded Wakandans as humans, and constantly called them savages. Sound familiar? White Man’s Burden? Social Darwinism? Eugenics? Maybe?

Then there is the use of the CIA, which might have been a move to try connect Black Panther to the rest of the Avengers. Yet his presence was not made as a person to fully depend on for leadership. Contrary to usual presentations of the CIA, he was an outsider who could only be present if he followed the strict instructions of Nakia, Shuri and M’baku. At the same time, I do think that it might be a little jab at how the CIA always involves themselves in an opportunity where they believe they can best gain an advantage. And I would not be surprised if the next sets of movies have a betrayal situation (even though the CIA has never been loyal; please refer to Patrice Lumumba and/or Bay of Pigs). The CIA’s presence did irk me immensely, knowing that they have never been genuinely heroic and honest as the Agent Ross presented, and Lumumba’s life provides enough evidence for that. Let’s not forget that they (CIA) are very much the “coloniser” Shuri says he is. I also enjoyed the lack of wisdom shown by the UN. “What can a country that only does farming do for us?” is the thought which is very much alive in the back of many minds. What else does the African continent have to give except for its resources?

Outside of the movie, there are external factors that exist that enforce their power to the extent to which “Black Panther” could fully be implemented. It is without a doubt important that the very same racist and oppressive institutions that claim to be decolonizing and breaking down archaic systems are the grandchildren to the institutions that created them. With that said, it is then important to recognize that the outburst of an all-Black cast may have forced them to include white actors in the script and production. This may have been one of the most comprehensible ways to have done so. It also is interesting that when the world is in despair, it is upon the opening of African resources and the regulation of them (read as climate change policies) that the rest of the world can hope to prosper.

So what is the impact of Black Panther? Even though it is presented from a Hollywood standpoint, which to some may have appeared as wrong and politically polarizing. But that polarization has a reach across the world: the movie is poised to surpass $1 billion in box office sales. Beside money, the polarization also allows for this to be presented to many different communities across the world. Many children and adults can now see themselves as: the tech genius who does not need to conform and be her own boss (Shuri), they can see themselves as contributing to the global progress of the world (T’Challa), they can see themselves as a general a brave bald-headed woman (Okoye), they can see themselves as complicated, empathetic, loving, fierce (Nakia and the Queen), they can see themselves as healers (Zuri) and the availability of option creates a tantalizing and unlimited number of dreams to pursue. And the best part, is that it says, as an African I can do all these really phenomenal things whilst wearing attires that I look really good in, relate to, am proud of and presents my culture. Breaking the good ol’ suit and tie, because there isn’t anything better than the Red, Black and Green of fashionable Pan-Africanism.