Black Panther cast
More info i
Credit: Marvel Studios, Entertainment Weekly

How Black Panther is reframing the narrative of African people for American viewers

Contributed by
Dec 13, 2018, 5:30 PM EST

It’s been over 10 months since the premiere of Black Panther, and the buzz has not died down. The film took in over $1.2 billion at the box office worldwide and is now nominated for several Golden Globes, but its most important accomplishment may just be the conversations it has created.

With such success of both the film and its soundtrack, there have been several publications that put out various stories about the significance of the film, specifically for those who identify as African American. From conversations about the diaspora, Black representation, and cultural significance, the film created space to discuss Blackness in a new and more inclusive way.

In short, African people aren’t used to seeing their culture painted in a positive light in American film. While there have been films in the past like Coming to America that have entertained the idea of Africa and its people in a comedic way, both critics and filmmakers alike believe Black Panther has set the trend and officially redefined the ways we discuss Africa and the culture.

“Being a Sierra Leonean-American, the film definitely showcased Africa in a positive light," writer and filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu tells SYFY WIRE. “It was like African bingo — you could spot different attire here, or hear a different dialect there. The ways it showed Africa and its cultures reminds us that Africa and its people are complicated, but nuanced — and there is so much beauty in that.”

For Jusu, what makes the film even more compelling is seeing her culture represented in a way that she had never seen before: “What was amazing was seeing African people beyond colonization. They were in charge of their own power for a change. They were in charge of their own decisions, and that was amazing to see. The film gave African people a voice.”

Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic and writer of the book Race Baiter, wrote earlier in the year about the cultural significance of the film, suggesting that the implications of Black Panther are more important than what many gave the film credit for.

“I have read all the comics and have watched the movie several times,” Deggans tells SYFY WIRE, “and each time I get excited -- not for me, but for the culture! Black Panther made us think of Africa and its people in a way we have never seen. It was fun. It was insightful. I was crafted in an authentic way — something I have been wanting to see for a very long time.”

This is important, considering the regressive and harmful ways that American films often depict Africa and those with African lineage. “We never see Africa or its people in positions of power,” Deggans notes. “But in Black Panther, we had that. Their technology was more advanced and we had African characters at the center. They weren’t noble victims like we often see in other films. There was an authenticity in the film that rarely happens around stories of African people.”

Black Panther

For many, the film represented the undoing of several years of stereotypes and microaggressions that lived in movies about Africa. It served as a reminder that Africa and its people are more than the struggles that are highlighted, and that Blackness deserved to be celebrated globally.

“When you often think about Africa and the visuals that society gives us of the continent, it is often painted as being a place with nothing but malnutritioned, poor helpless people,” writer and entertainment critic Tre’vell Anderson tells SYFY WIRE. “I mean, folks will always go back to Coming to America because that is all Americans have to tell the story about African people. But that film wasn’t meant to fully represent the continent. But Black Panther was, and it reminded all Black people — specifically African people — that their stories are needed in American film in order to redefine how we think about Africa as a whole.”

Black Panther

Deggans says that while he also believes that there is some truth in what some critics have said about Black Panther trivializing the struggles that African people face, he believes that the film does a great job of acknowledging the politics of race, culture, and identity. “If we really think about what the film is trying to say, it's really a commentary on the fear that lives within Africa in its people," he says. "There has been a long history of Africa and its people being done wrong and in a way, Black Panther addresses this.”

Even so, despite claims that Black Panther was the movie that would redefine how we think and speak about Africa, there are some writers who believe the film did more damage than good. While the cultural significance and the film have made a great impact on many who identify as African or African American, many believe that there has been too much importance being placed on the film to be everything for everyone.

Jusu believes that the film shouldn’t be seen as a means to an end as we celebrate its success. “I think we really need to think about the intention of the film,” she says. “We need to remember that the film was not created to liberate Africa of its people. It was a catalyst, not a solution. We shouldn’t put that pressure on directors or writers. It’s not fair.”

But, the discussion around the multifaceted views of the film is complex. “I mean, I can understand why an African person might feel like the film doesn’t do Africa or it’s people justice,” Anderson says. “I welcome that, quite honestly. The greater challenge is welcoming the complexities around the film because the topic of race and identity is, in fact, complicated and that’s often missing from film.”

Black Panther_ancestor_theblerdgurl.png

Though the film has become a staple in the Black community as a blueprint for what African representation looks like in film, there are still more truths that have yet to be shared. Niyaku notes that while Black Panther did give us a glimpse of Africa and its people, we have to understand that the film isn’t everything for everyone.

“People have to understand that Africa and the continent in itself is extremely complicated,” she says. “We have to see all of it in order to paint a better picture. We have to acknowledge that education doesn’t teach us about the REAL Africa. What are the stories we are trying to tell? Who gets to tell them?”

The question regarding who gets to tell these stories is a very salient one, considering that there are very few African directors who have had films do well in the mainstream. “African directors need more agency,” Deggans says. “We need to give filmmakers the resources to tell these stories the right way. We need to hand the resources to those who really know and understand the culture so that we are adding truth to what we think we know about Africa and its culture. We also have to ask if this is just a flash in the pan, or if we are really invested in the reshaping the narrative of Africa in American film.”

“It's more than just seeing yourself on screen,” Anderson adds. “It’s about feeling involved. It’s about making sure that Africans are involved in all areas of storytelling and filmmaking. While Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o have been involved in the film, are we casting African writers? Are we casting African directors and giving them a budget to actually make big blockbuster films? Those are the things that matter. That is how we add more truth to how folks see themselves on screen.”