It is my privilege to host a guest review of Black Panther, by my friend, Batanayi Manyika. Bat is one of the smartest men I know. He and I have spent many hours discussing theology, life, narrative form and what it means to be African. You can follow Bat on Twitter: @batmanyika
Warning: Spoiler Alert
The Black Panther Will Return
by Batanayi I. Manyika
Do you remember MacGyver and his premier problem-solving skills? What about the soldiers of fortune notoriously branded the A-Team? Perhaps you remember Michael Knight the “young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent and helpless…” Well, these were my childhood television heroes. Most of them were white, and those who weren’t featured in supporting roles. Do you remember Blood Diamond and how it portrayed Africa as a continent ravaged by war and disease? Do you remember how it told a story of valuable natural resources being mined to fuel greed and power? Perhaps you remember Hotel Rwanda and its retelling of the brutal genocide in 1994. Maybe you remember Tears of the Sun and how it depicted a military rescue mission in a failed African state. What of Amistad complete with its immortal line “Give us, us free!”?
You will be hard pressed to come across a Hollywood Blockbuster, set in Africa, portraying Africa in nuanced, positive light. Well, until a few days ago.
Enter the Black Panther.
Black Panther is not just a movie, it is the precipitation of a people’s quiet aspirations (in the movie business, at least). Like a symphony, Black Panther is a band of instruments in harmony, speaking together about this, and about that, and about the other. All this, while centred on the major narrative of a heroic regal feline, also known as T’Challa.
It begins with a father-son conversation, the parent telling the child an origins story. The graphics that accompany this narration are painted in Vibranium, the strongest metal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The subtext is vivid. It goes something like so, “Africans are a story people, their collective and individual identities are forged from and shaped by their relationship to a metanarrative that encompasses the living and the dead.” At this point in the movie I was grinning with glee, because Coogler had nailed it.
Next, we meet king T’Chaka on US soil. The occasion? Vibranium is missing from Wakanda, and the king has his suspicions. And here’s another gem. If you know anything about Southern African history, then you will be familiar with Shaka Zulu, the fearsome king of the Zulu, whose military prowess and ingenuity shaped the region. In my mind T’Chaka and Shaka, sound mighty close. Coincidence? I think not.
Along comes T’Challa, the heir apparent. We see him in action vanquishing a small military outfit with the assistance of strong Wakandan women. Next. we see him returning to Wakanda aboard a flying vessel that is lightyears ahead of the world’s technology. Then we are introduced to the family, and yes, it’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, who steals the show. She’s ultra-cheeky and is certified genius. Her intelligence is on par with that of Tony Stark, and the parallels don’t end there. Notice how Tony Stark works to the stimulating sounds of classic rock, whereas Shuri being African, works to the rhythmic beats of House music in her lab. This attention to detail may be lost on some, but for Africans, to hear beats we bop to blasting through an auditorium is cinematic gold (or should I say vibranium).
The story continues with T’Challa being crowned king after facing the beast that is Mbaku in mortal combat. The new king then pursues some Tolkien business in South Korea. What follows is a breath-taking action sequence harkening to the Bond franchise. Black Panther’s suit, Okoye’s ferocity, and Nakia’s skill lead to Klaue’s capture but not for long, Killmonger spoils the party.
Back to Wakanda, where a royal challenge is accepted. This time the strength of the Black Panther fails as Killmonger tosses the young king into the abyss. The crucible moment is tense and unpredictable. Nonetheless, T’Challa returns to face Killmonger one more time. More fighting sequences, more Star Wars like flying. Even rhinos show they’re not extinct. With spearhead to chest all is resolved. Wakanda is rescued from war mongering and the Black Panther lives.
- White Saviour Complex – Black Panther disturbs the regressive and blinkered narrative known in some quarters as the ‘white saviour complex.’ The protagonist is black, and contrary to historical precedent, he is no one’s sidekick. Arguably, Black Panther is a watershed moment demonstrating that there are heroes in Africa both in the MCU, and in reality. These heroes do not need external affirmation, validation, or recognition for them to be, because they already are. The challenge for all, is how to relate absent hierarchical thinking that grades people groups based on perceived economic performance. The Black Panther opens this conversation, and it does so effectively because unlike tales of old, in Wakanda the black guy doesn’t die first.
- Language is the outer skin of culture – My Koine Greek lecturer, Dr Glenn Balfour, used to say, “Language is the outer-skin of culture.” In other words, to appreciate a culture one needs to walk through the gateway of language. Chadwick Boseman does exactly that. He speaks isiXhosa, a Nguni language with clicks so diverse it makes fireworks on Chinese New Year sound amateurish. I know, because I speak isiNdebele another Nguni language with as many clicks. So, when Boseman spoke a language that was drilled into me for sixteen years, I identified with the man. Ngezwa umoya uvuka, ngijabula kabanzi ngalolulimi ababelikhuluma (I was overjoyed hearing the language they were speaking). Too often, Hollywood has placed Zulu speakers in Yoruba speaking Nigeria, or Swahili speakers in Angola. Imagine placing the Statue of Liberty in Mexico City? Or the Golden Gate Bridge in Ottawa? Well, this time the man from South Carolina learnt the language, the intonation, and accent and he left me convinced of his African-ness. And it wasn’t just him, Danai Gurira, and Michael B. Jordan weren’t bad either. The whole cast it seems were schooled in Nguni syllables. Enkosi kakhulu! (Thank you very much)
- Nested Social Identities – Africa is not a monolith. African identities are not homogenous. We are diverse yet one. Africa and its people display a high count of what Sociologists call “social identity complexity.” Take Nakia as an example. She is a Wakandan spy, fluent in English, isiXhosa, and as we discovered in Korea, Korean (and who knows what else). She fits into diverse cultures and thrives because she has navigated the torturous terrain of learning a world outside Wakanda. With Africa boasting vast numbers of citizens in the diaspora, seeing Nakia in action is a nod to the identities they embody. We are African, we are westernized, we are traditional, and we are modern. These seemingly divergent threads live in harmony within the Wakandan and the African. Reason? Before we learn to be winners we are conditioned to our place in the great African narrative and in the nuclear community. Before we learn Descartes’ axiom “cogito ergo sum”, we learn Ubuntu which teaches us, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye,” (an individual is an individual because of the community).
- The Wakandan Woman – strength, dignity, beauty and grace are on display throughout the film. Okoye, played by the American-Zimbabwean Danai Gurira, is a force not to mess with. She sports a clean number 1 barber’s cut and wears Wakandan armour like a warrior immortal. Her one liners are punchy, and her portrayal of a female general is out of this world. For her “guns are primitive, and weaves are detestable.” Even her monologue describing how she would kick Klaue’s posterior is delivered in rich isiXhosa. It had me giggling and shouting “akumtshele!” (Tell him!) to the bemusement of French people around me. Then there is Ayo, played by the German-Ugandan Florence Kasumba. She is famous for telling Black Widow to “move or be moved,” in Civil War. And Of course, Nakia. T’Challa’s ex and now spy at large. She wore her hair like an African and was strong-willed like most African women I know. Nakia is every bit T’Challa’s equal. Thankfully she is not of the Disney mould where size-zero and long flowing hair are considered ideal. This is Wakandan beauty. It is dignified and strong, and lest one think they can take advantage, just ask Killmonger how hard it is to fight real warriors without being “necklaced.”
Space does not permit me to speak about, the vistas, the architecture, the many tribes, the music, the colours and the landscapes. Suffice to say, Black Panther offers a sincere and unique window into Africa as I know it, and only those with eyes will be captivated by the narratives on offer.
I am a Christian. I am an African. In that order.
Black Panther is not a film about Christianity. Neither does it attempt to tackle the thorny subject of faith. Yet for the life of me, my reflections took me beyond my love for the motherland, to my deep love for my Creator and Lord. So, what theology can one glean from this blockbuster?
- Diversity and representation – In Acts 6:1-7 we are introduced to racism playing out in the Early Church. If we think this was an isolated case, we see it rearing its ugly head again in Acts 10. And if we think these were obscure occasions in a historical text, it shows up again in Galatians 2:11ff. Diversity is at the heart of the Gospel, so much so that John tells us of a multitude from every tribe, nation and tongue worshipping the Lamb in the eschaton (Rev 7:9-17). This reality is not for the future only. Christians are invited to progressively realise diversity in their communities. It is not enough to celebrate one culture at the expense of another. It is not biblical to mute diversity for the sake of conformity. The reaction to Black Panther is such a testament. It tells the Christian that our identities exist in relationship with people from every tribe, language, and nation for such is the Kingdom of God.
Maybe yours is a church leadership that has supressed the voices and expressions of a people unlike you. May Black Panther serve as your Paul, awakening you to the reality that the Kingdom of God is made up of Jew and Gentile bound together by the gracious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, and sealed by His Spirit. Maybe yours is a church that does not represent certain people groups within its leadership. Again, Black Panther has something to say. In church leadership we appoint leaders who look like and identify with the people they serve. Why? The Lord Jesus did it first (John 1).
- Treasures unseen – Vibranium or Isipho (the gift), can be paralleled to Jesus who is the gift from the Father. In Black Panther Vibranium hails from the Heavens and gives wealth to a people. The outside world perceives Wakanda as a country of shepherds, too poor to compete or contribute anything meaningful. Similarly, the Kingdom of God is often regarded an opiate by the unbelieving when in fact it is the locus of life eternal. This life eternal is God’s gift to those who repent of sin and trust Jesus. Like Vibranium, whose treasures cannot be depleted, membership in the Kingdom of God is the greatest gift God gives humanity.
- A Great cloud of witnesses – The African worldview is on graphic display in Black Panther. Rites of passage and contact with the ancestors is normative. For a Christian, these rites are not part of our metanarrative, nor do they inform our identity. Nevertheless, Christians have an ancestral heritage of faith catalogued in the Bible informing us of God’s redemptive plan across generations (cf. Heb. 11). While we don’t drink special portions to gain the strength of the Black Panther, we do partake of the Lord’s body and blood through the Eucharist, and as often as we do we are tied to the narrative of God’s victory and redemption in Christ Jesus, our Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17-34).
As my wife and I walked back to the parking lot after the movie, we saw people wearing colourful African print dresses, colourful headcovers, colourful African shirts with matching trousers. These were people from every race, age group, and continent. They were buzzing with joy, just hanging around the foyer, their bond stronger because they had been to Wakanda and back. These were people baptised into a new experience where formerly supressed narrative took centre stage enhancing their appreciation for humankind. Such is the effect of Wakanda, the Africa I identify with, and one I have high hopes for. If you don’t believe me, then watch this space, for as sure as the sun rises east to west, the Black Panther will return.