Black Panther, a proto cultural phenomenon could ill afford to do anything less than mega. Simple!
Anything less than a three-day ball park domestic gross of more than $200 million, placing it fifth behind super-franchises Star Wars, and $361 million global takings in its opening weekend, would have ben mediocre.
This, it’s become obvious is a coming-of-age moment. Rap, Old Skool, black films e.g. Shaft and music videos from the vision of Hype William’s Missy Elliott — The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) and Notorious B.I.G’’s Mo Money Mo Problems have all under and overscored the power of black imagery and narrative.
But there’s a major difference here. Black Panther, a comic book hero, is a family film. Anyone can see it and that means the ability to sow seeds with the young. Panther is ‘Capital’, ‘Bad A**’, ‘On fleek’. All the team needed to do was step up, play digital mid-wife, and nurse and protect their new protege. They did.
Hence, whilst media eulogises with column-inch fillers about how delighted Disney and the film’s team led by its 31-year old director Ryan Coogler should be, away from the cameras Coogler et al, judging from his demeanour, will be like: “Ok guys back to business. What’s next?”
The result worldwide is like opening a Panther’s box — reversing fortunes. Thus, enabling other talent who’ve marked their territory to sprint through the window left ajar. This ranges from the fan illustrations to simulacrums.
In Vancouver 19-year-old student Edward Madojemu has brilliantly crafted a space age adventure in virtual reality via quill with NASA — Nigerians altering Space Age — at the helm. Edward’s brand of comic superhero merges Pan- Africanism with graphic novels. His short profile film, I’m producing, soon.
Then there’s the Kinship of Kush founder Shanthi Annan steadfastly recreating a visionary fabled world from the archives — Africa as haute fashion and life. Kinship launches in a few months time, supporting youth power and the Queen’s Trust with Prince Harry as President.
The meticulous build up towards the film’s launch sans leaks, the script that plays on an African state as a super power and its reverential characters — both super and black. The meticulous choreographing and staging of the casts cinema showings and promotion of Kente and various indigenous designs. These exists in the play book for crystallising magnificence from indelible myths.
Except this is a project way beyond needing mythologising. This is real politiks and culture that a world has largely turned its back on, save the occasional abandonment of a narrative of Africa as “ a shit hole”. It didn’t warrant it in the first place however Panther’s presence couldn’t be more timely.
For generations, old and young, film possesses the power to re-orientate thinking, first in the way heritage and commerce can be celebrated and then how matter-of-factly it impacts social politics such as Cathy Come Home, 1966, (Homelessness); Blackfish, 2013 ( Captivity); The Day After Tomorrow, 2004
( Climate Change). I know what you’re thinking, “It’s just a film, and my breathless tone should be contained”.
And these squiggly lines on this white background that constitute the alphabet and words, are just words! Or this fight scene explained by Cooglar is, well, just a fight scene. It isn’t it’s a mind melding inception of subconscious cues and tropes doing wonders to your hippocampus. You probably wouldn’t consciously notice.
Firstly, in this politicised space, with what we can only believe will be a triple play: new graphic novels and merchandising, it’s more than a film. But even then its iconography and symbolism has parallels in ways that phenomenal films deconstruct conventions heralding new contemporary thinking.
In the the West, we generally see the world through the lens of Western Renaissance; its art, architecture, and customs. That conditioning fails to take into account the richness of Africa, and how the West marvelled, purloined, or plundered its ideas. Panther affects some restoration, for example, the Dogons and Tellems of West Africa lived in the cliffs.
When kids want to be a Panther rather than a cowboy, somethings up!
Secondly embodied in this juggernaut’s missive are larger themes. Themes that chime with the social’s status quo: Black Lives Matter, Race, and the unsayable-sayable — the notion of Africa as a robbed technological platform and riffing on the ‘i’ in Africa as interactive, Afr-ica. Black brawn and beauty is ra-branding for business. ‘Ra’ is not a typo. Believe!
Whether Africa itself directly benefits from this largesse is another thing; though a Wakanda theme park in the South, xhosa culture featured in the film — and where I reported for the BBC in my reporting days wouldn’t go amiss. Brenda Fassie, were she still with us should have had a cameo in the film. They didn’t come bigger than Ms Fassie.
Or how about East Africa — home to the Samburu girls of the Maasai , Kichepos of South East Sudan with their lip plates said to discourage slave trading, or the Dinka women and their elaborate beed formation — all of which the film draws on its myriad jewellery and costume design.
Here, too is where actress Panther’s Letitia Wright’s character as scientist Shuri sparks thoughts of the brilliant Kenyan-born Harvard-trained lawyer Ory Okolloh, whose activism and blogging spearheaded the ubiquitous tech Ushahidi. Otherwise you could look to Katherine Johnson for inspiration.
In the West of Africa, super heroes reigned in Liberian footballers doing the unthinkable in super leagues…
…whilst in Ghana, where I grew up, the life of modern day Kings and Queens is seeded in custom and tradition, brimming with story arcs.
No! Black Panther and its legion of related modern graphic novels I spent my youth and hard-earned pocket money on, only for my mother to bin my reads, will seemingly work more towards the African-American zeitgeist and change management. That’s not a criticism. It’s just where Hollywood, land of dreams, can collapse ambition, commerce, and futurism unabashedly into strategy. I’m still getting my kicks from the genre.
Panther’s allure however sparks personal and reflective memories from real life super heroes, such as :
- Interviewing the original Cat woman from Batman and Robin aka Eartha Kitt on the BBC. Yes, in the podcast below she does that growl :)
- Being the filmmaker in the Pocono mountains and Memphis for World heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis’ epic fight with Mike Tyson.
- And producing President Barack Obama’s 100 Days visuals at the Southbank Centre to classical conductor/ writer Dr Shirley Thompson’s score.
Black Panther stands on the shoulders of a brilliant array of films, made by African and African Americans or featuring mainly black casts, from John Singleton’s breakthrough 1991 Boyz in the Hood, Wesley Snipe’s 1998 Blade and who can forget Ernest Dickerson’s, Juice — from this package when I was a producer/ presenter on BBC Radio London.
Panther has created its own cross road, it’s own franchise ala Star Wars and a meta mythology: somewhere scores of youth likely believe Wakanda is a country, just like 45 believes Nambia is.
Just as Star Wars epitomised the Russian conflict with the US, Panther is the modern day conflict with appointed brand tasters defining how we see the world.
Its pushed fresh aesthetics in filmmaking, innovated in rigged camera shots and accelerated cinema’s meta image. It’s ability to affect a seismic impact beyond its cinema run will depend on as much, what happens next? Will Cooglar carry the next Panthers? Will its profits frame a social purpose?
A friend of mine, once distinguished Ballet and African dance as this. Ballet dancing reaches for the sky, while adowa and assorted African dances drop to the earth. That aptly describes Black Panther.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is Aspers Visting professor of Journalism at University of British Columbia and Course Leader of the newly created digital and interactive storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster. He’s a videojournalist and cinema journalist. You can reach him here at david(at)Viewmagazine(dot)tv www.viewmagazine.tv