“Afrofuturism is an intersection of imagination, technology, the future, and liberation. I generally define Afrofuturism as a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens.
Ytasha L. Womack
After I watched Black Panther, I could very assuredly, and for the first time in my life, say: money well spent. The latest Marvel flick starred, for the first time in its short-lived history, a black actor in the main role. The cast predominantly, barring the exception of Martin Freeman, was black. Its performance at the box office goes on to show that art and movies transcend human-made barriers like race and color. Virtually everything that distinguishes Black Panther from other marvel endeavors is its brazen attempt at making itself complete as a movie and minimizing everything that makes it a superhero movie. It takes a risk by limiting its mass appeal and accessibility to the wider audience by bringing in elements of a comprehensive feature film but emerges triumphant as proven by its record at the box office.
The plot of the movie picks up from King T’Chaka’s death, with T’Challa, his son, on the verge of becoming king. The movie serves as the origin of the fictional third world country of Wakanda. As T’Challa prepares to be crowned king succeeding his father, the threat of Ulysses Klaue, a rogue, and absconding Wakandian traitor, looms large. T’Challa, now the king after defeating M’Baku, a member of the Jabari clan, in the challenge arena, goes to Korea with Okoye, the general of the Dora Milajae, and his ex-lover, Nakia, to retrieve the Wakandan artifact stolen by Klaue and Erik Stevens. After apprehending Klaue and seeing him set free by Stevens, T’Challa must explain to his natives why he didn’t bring Klaue back alive and brought along a foreign ‘intruder’, Agent Ross, to Wakanda. Losing support of his people, T’Challa faces the task of coming up against Erik Stevens, his uncle N’Jobu’s son, in combat, and putting the future of Wakanda at risk. Delving a bit deeper into the technical aspects of the film, I am reminded of Davide Fincher’s statement about the MCU, and how it was “lassoed and hogtied” by narrative conventions. Black Panther absolves itself from these conventions and despite subverting Syd Field’s three-act paradigm, it retains in every act the essential elements of a story. The three-act paradigm unravels as follows: set-up, confrontation, resolution. While Black Panther retains these elements in the individual acts, it digresses from these tested methods, with director Ryan Coogler (‘Fruitvale Station’, ‘Creed’) giving the film a bold auteurist twist.
Black Panther ranks at the top of the MCU pantheon. Its completeness rests at the juncture between cinematic realism and theatrical spectacle. The film is as much about cherishing and revering the past as it is about embracing and accepting the future. A recurring motif throughout the film is this conflict that T’Challa finds himself in: whether to open the gates of Wakanda’s avant-garde technological status to the world or preserve its obscurity from the public eye. The two different dreams that Erik and T’Challa have are also strongly inclined towards hinting the audience about this theme.
Another striking and beautiful feature of the film is its representation of Africa as an advanced, friendly, and prospering land, the civilization thriving in isolation, unblemished by war or colonialism. The Afrocentric themes revolve around realizing a definitive and respectable standing for African nations in the international scenario which is dominated by European and American countries. The interplay between these competing visions is artistically intoxicating, and something that you don’t come to expect from a superhero movie. Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African/African-American culture with technology. Black Panther successfully touches upon these themes and we see Ryan Coogler’s immaculate version of a future Africa. The social and cultural ethos of the millennium gone by is captured with perfection by the prodigal director with a painstaking endeavor to simplify complex and meticulously filtered details. The colorful costumes, the seemingly humorous traditions (like the bizarre shoulder thing leading to the anticipation of a duel), and the aesthetic rainforest-shed Wakanda are the soul of the film and help assimilate a comprehensive viewing of the film. Biblical representations, like T’Challa walking on water like Jesus, blend in perfectly and amplify the effect it wants to have on its audience.
The two things that I loved the most, and so pleasantly twisted about in my seat, were the writing and the cinematography. The film innately possesses some of the best lines I’ve heard on celluloid in recent times. My favorite coincides with that of John Lewis. the civil rights hero who documented his story in the acclaimed graphic memoir, “March”: “In the times of chaos, the wise build bridges and the fools build walls.” While that does imply a sly dig at Trump’s ‘Great Wall’, Coogler has denied the allegations and concedes innocence in the matter. Despite that, Black Panther is the most politically infused movie of recent times concerning various themes like the refugee crisis, political asylum, and hegemonic domination on the global stage. Even the Killmonger’s dying wishes of “death over bondage”, directly refers to the heroics of the enslaved at the Middle Passage. The second thing, cinematography. I kept nudging my friend throughout the film being an audience to Rachel Morrison’s sumptuous and magnetic set pieces, similar to ones like these.
The film is replete with a lot of other scenes like this one. As soon as the lights came back on, halfway through the movie, I was tempted into seeing who the cinematographer was of the movie. And I wasn’t surprised to find Rachel Morrison with the credits, nominated for Best Cinematographer at the Oscars for ‘Mudbound’, a similar film to Black Panther in terms of dealing with race and crisis. Her expert handling of the light, which was evident in ‘Mudbound’, continued with this film and boy was I impressed. It could have been a real challenger if it released a bit early at the 90th Academy Awards.
The character development was another feature I thought stood out, apart from its villain. Almost every character was empowered to command his/her own individual movie. Such was the quality of Killmonger, that you almost connect with him more than T’Challa himself. Michael B. Jordan successfully creates an emotionally resonant and tragic villain that threatens to come ashore with Ledger’s Joker. Killmonger is the manifestation of this clash of cultures, torn between two homes, two identities, burdened by the past of his ancestors, and concerned about the generations waiting for posterity. Jordan shines as the ruthless antagonist and creates a villain with a meaning and a purpose.
Gripping, thrilling, and replete with intelligent pieces of humor, Black Panther is the year’s best movie and stands out as the most refined representation of Afrofuturism and its implications as a global force.