Editor: I’ve invited back Dali, MacEwan University undergrad, to co-author a post about the wildly successful, critically and fan acclaimed Black Panther with Dr. Biittner. Both have very personal and different connections to Africa. Warning: some minor spoilers follow so if you haven’t seen the film yet then stop reading this and go see it already.
Dr. Biittner: I have many thoughts about Black Panther: as a fan, as an Africanist archaeologist, as an anthropologist, as a feminist. I want to start by making explicit my connection to this film as an Africanist archaeologist. Since 2006 my research has focused on studying the origins of our species as evidenced in the archaeological Iringa Region, southern Tanzania. I spent four field seasons in Tanzania – this includes three years of archaeological survey and excavations in Iringa Region and one trip to Arusha (northern Tanzania) where I was invited to participate in a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of “Zinj” as well as the biannual meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA). In 2010 I attended SAfA in Dakar, Senegal, where I experienced culture shock as I found myself back in Africa but not the Africa I knew and loved. I consider myself an active member of the Africanist archaeology community through regular participation in SAfA meetings and a PANAF congress. My time in Tanzania has cultivated a deep love for the place and its peoples. But I’m not African, even as someone who acknowledges that our shared ancestry as a species can be traced there. In Canada I’m a white settler, in Tanzania I’m mzungu (someone with white skin). Both terms acknowledge the privilege I have and my outsider status.
So when I watched Black Panther I was situated in myself as someone who appreciates and acknowledges the diversity of African cultures. This is captured in such a dynamic visual way in the clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, and other body modifications (including scarification) of the characters, which many others more knowledgeable about design and African textiles have already commented on. National and Panafrican identities reflected on the purple carpet premiere of the film; for example, here’s an excellent thread breaking down the traditional clothing worn by the stars of the film:
These personal identities and connections to Africa were also represented in theatres across North America.
And have also created dialogues outside of the theatre as pride in identity, in knowledge has led to exchanges such as:
Now even as mzungu, I can “read” some of the designs, styles, textures, and motifs. I saw inspirations of East Africa broadly and felt joy because it spoke of a place I think of as another home. In the streets of Birnin Zana, the capital city of Wakanda, I saw baskets that reminded me of those from Iringa. The bright red cloth, shaved heads, armbands, and spears of the Dora Milaje, the all female royal bodyguard, reminded me of the Maasai. Importantly these various elements of real-world culture reimagined and writ large on the big screen come together to create a panafrican-ness – a nation that can be owned and shared by all Africans. And this is important because representation matters but also because of the social issues embedded in the film.
Black Panther captures some very important points about the ongoing consequences of colonialism and slavery for people of colour. Most of the critical plot points and character development revolve around the legacies of colonialism and slavery and what is means for Wakanda to be a nation that was never colonized, what it means to have Africans who have never known colonization. Now in this post I clearly don’t have the time to go over these in depth but Black Panther nails it. The explicit and repeated use of the term “Colonizer” was powerful and had echos for the current use of settler here in Canada. The reminder of the shared history of colonialism in Africa also contributes to the creation of a Panafrican identity as does the legitimization of anger. Anger against the Colonizers and those who are complicit in the act of colonization (by, like Wakanda, removing oneself from the discourse, by not helping nor aiding those impacted) is central to the film as it is in the real world. However , the anger of women and people of colour (and now of children as seen in response to the Parkland school shooting) is something that is generally seen as something that not ok; only white males are allowed to be angry and to display it publicly and privately. However in Black Panther, anger and rage is legitimized; it is validated as a necessary response to the intergenerational trauma, poverty, disenfranchisement, criminalization of Black people in the United States and elsewhere. It is framed not just as a result of colonialism, slavery, and racism but also in juxtaposition to masculinity. Toxic masculinity is challenged consistently throughout the film through the relationships the characters have with each other (I can’t go into this so much because massive spoilers). Note: all of this also serves to create the BEST Marvel villain to ever appear in the MCU – Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” – whose storyline is probably the MOST important part of the film as well.
Dali: Black Panther was first introduced to me in my first year at Macewan (2013), which feels like such a long time ago because of the growth I’ve experienced in becoming a proud African man. The Black Panther movie is a culturally important moment for the movement of Panafricanism and I just want to explain its relevance. My heritage is much deeper than just Zambia, in fact my tribe’s (Ngoni people) history has long roots back to KwaZulu-Natal. As a result of the Zulu Wars my ancestors were dispersed as far north as Tanzania, where you can find the town/gulf Mwanza (my last name). But this knowledge and pride was something I never really had in my earlier 19 years of living. My identity has never been very clear to me since I was born South African, but was never seen as such by my peers. Instead I was seen as a “Qwereqwere” (Derogatory term for foreigner) in South Africa, and somehow Chizungu (white/English speaker) back in Zambia. So I just fell back into the category “Black” for the most part, as it felt safer than constantly feeling like no one wanted me to be apart of their national identity.
How I experienced Black Panther was sort of on two different levels. The first was how I saw myself in both the hero (T’Challa) and Villain ( Erik Killmonger), and secondly the pride of African heritage that the movie offered. In my opinion, Killmonger was not a villain but rather the voice of many black folk that have lost connection to their African heritage. He is seen to be bad, but if you really break his character down he is like most black people who are living outside of the African continent. The feelings of not being wanted by your kinsmen, not having a place to be who you are, and more importantly being created to be a demon by those who colonized and oppressed you. His fight was for all Africans who have been oppressed by colonizers all over the global and called to empowerment of these people, which quite frankly is a ideology of the “Black Panther Movement”. So watching him brought me a bit of stress because his plight was juxtaposed with a somewhat passive approach to dealing with the colonizers (Wakanda’s). Seeing T’Challa and the respect he received and power he held was more than necessary to me. The pride I felt watching an African character played in such a unshakeable light brought tears to the little child inside of me. He represented the need to be responsible for all your people, along with the fact that a black man is nothing without the black women that form and strengthen him. These images and lessons are extremely important things that I’m only now learning at the age of 22, so could you imagine what these lessons will do for young black children today? The pride they will hold in regards to their extravagant clothing and history/tradition that comes along with it. The pride in the sound of Bantu languages on a big screen and the accents we have for too long tried to remove! The understanding that yes in fact, our people have been colonized and all our knowledge and traditions were stripped away as well. These lessons the movie offer are things I struggled with for many years and many others have too, but that’s changed now. The stigma behind Africanness has been removed! Clothing is being shared across oceans (people dressing up in regalia to the movie), African hip hop artists are being featured in big named American artists albums, and the bridge between Africa and removed Africans has been rebuilt. Phew… So yeah, this movie is more than just a film to go see, it has relevance to millions of people. People that felt like they never had a identity to call theirs, people who were ashamed of their skin color and heritage, and people who desired the images of a thriving continent. Wakanda forever a reminder that black is forever. That the so called “black magic” and “deserted land” is beautiful and more advanced than we are told to believe. And as I sat through that film with my father and caught him smiling with pure joy, I knew that the lessons being taught were exactly what our world needed right now.
Editor: I love how this discussion opens up about what this movie meant to you both emotionally and intellectually – and how it shows how your identities and your anthropological perspective on them have influenced your experience of the film. Storytelling as a way of reifying and recognizing our forms of humanity and cultural experience is a big deal, and a big budget, major studio, widely seen superhero film are pretty much our most manifest forms of this. Thanks for the review, nerds (and nerds in training)! Now go see Black Panther. Again.