Black Panther: Who is the Hero?

Who speaks for me in Black Panther? It’s Erik Killmonger. For me the anti-hero is the voice of the African diaspora. Watching the movie in Toronto, on Wednesday night, in a packed theatre, I was full of anticipation for the film to roll. And when it did, it was mesmerizing. This was Afro-futurism in action.

The mythical East African country of Wakanda is full of technological marvels, while still deeply rooted in traditions. In its futuristic cities the skyscrapers that glittered in the night are modern versions of the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, which was built almost a millennia ago.  When the shephard-warriors fling their capes – brightly coloured African fabrics with abstract designs – they transform from cloth to an energy wall that deflects bullets. Beautiful.

I spent the first half of the film immersed in the story, laughing at the sly jokes, and while trying to capture all the references to historical and contemporary events. And then Erik appeared. A beautiful man, among other beautiful men, his brooding heart spoke to mine.

As a boy in a parking lot in Oakland, California, enclosed by fences, shattered dreams and broken buildings, Erik saw the future and became an orphan in the same instance. Erik (Michael B. Jordan) comes to Wakanda to find family and to find home.

Erik crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a reverse African migration. The first outward journey was made by his ancestors 500 years prior. On this homeward voyage, Erik finds that you can go back there, but you can’t go back then. That first voyage was both a rite of passage and a site of rupture.

Wakanda, secretive and inward looking, hides its advance technology in plain sight, by pretending to be just another poor Third World country. The pretense kept the colonizers at bay for hundreds of years. Until the betrayal. Vibranium is a magic mineral that powers Wakanda’s technology. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) drinks the mineral he gains superpowers and becomes the Black Panther superhero. A handful of vibranium is more powerful than a nuclear bomb and worth more than a bucketful of diamonds. The fight to protect Wakanda is also the fight to keep control over the mineral.

black panther who is the hero

In a typical superhero films, women usually play two roles – the corrupt or the innocent. In other words they are powerful witches until they fall or the proverbial damsel in distress waiting for the superhero to rescue them. Black Panther turns this expectation on its head. The women are warriors, a queen, spies and a scientist. It is amazing seeing so many Black women who are dark, beautiful and confident. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) the super spy has the king’s heart. She makes it clear that he has to respect her choices. Their romance is a lovely subtext of the film.

But, to what extent do the women in the film play on another stereotype, that of the strong Black woman? Not all of us are strong, and not all of us are as brave as warriors.  The film does not give space for the women to be soft and messy humans with all the vulnerability that it entails.

In Wakanda Erik reconnects with family, the throne, but is never at home. His vision of the future is one where he alone rules as emperor of the world. His futurity depends on spilling blood and destroying traditions. Erik is an expert at war from his years as a special operative in the USA army in Iraq, Afghanistan and a few African countries. Wakanda’s vibranium-powered defenses and weapons could make him invincible. It is easy to dismiss Erik as just another despot or dictator believing that he is a god. Or that he represents a thug from the inner-city ghetto. But I think he is more complex than that. Erik was made by his society. His life chances were already prescribed before he took his first baby step.

Erik wants change. He wants a just world where the poor have a chance to be somebody, and a chance to taste the good life.

Erik uses the only method he knows – violence. His whole life has been about living with violence or the consequences of it. In Erik’s world love makes a man weak. And yet in his visits to his father in the after-life, the tears roll down both men’s faces as they talk. It is the only love Eric has ever known. And it was snatched away from him.

Back in the world of the living, Erik forces Wakanda out of its isolation. He sparked a revolution whose roots went back decades to that one night in the parking lot. This revolution will not be interrupted, even if it costs him his life. High on a mountain plateau, Eric watches the sunset over the cities and valley of Wakanda, propped up by his cousin King T’Challa.

“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Erik’s last words made the audience gasp.

Wakanda will share its technology with the rest of the world. Standing in the parking lot the rightful rulers of Wakanda vow to rebuild the area turning it into a new campus for their international technology centre. The Africans have crossed the Atlantic Ocean again, this time as captains of their own ship. They have come to civilize the world, through peace.

“In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe,” said King T’Challa.

black panther who is the hero

Black Panther is a blockbuster that lives up to its hype. The film has broken box office records on its opening weekend. So far it has made $426 million. It is on track to be in the top ten most popular films of all times. Black Panther is one of those cultural moments, when years from now people will be talking about how they felt when they saw the film. When Roots came out it was followed by a whole generation of children called Kunta Kinte. Something similar will happen with the names from Wakanda.

Black Panther is a story written by Black people for Black people, directed and staring Black people. The film industry justified its exclusion of Black people by stating that Black films don’t sell. The success of Black Panther shines a spotlight on the racism underpinning that claim.

In the last few years a trickle of Black films have smashed records and stereotypes. These include Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Hidden Figures, Dear White People and Girls Trip. These films show that the Black experience has universal appeal. It always had. It is only now being given the chance to shine. In the USA the push for change came from the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights Movement, and now from Black Lives Matter. Different eras, but still the same struggle for freedom. The film Black Panther echoes all of these legacies in its futuristic scenes.

A lot of my friends have seen the film three or more times. I will join them. The film has so many layers that it takes more than one viewing to enjoy and appreciate all of them.

As the credits rolled, I thought of Erik Killmonger. Sleep in peace brother, cradled by the ancestors and lulled by the ocean waves. You sacrificed so that I might find life.


6 Happy Black Films at TIFF

I kept looking at Danny Glover, trying to recollect where I knew him from. Did we meet at a concert, at an office party, or was he an ex-boyfriend of my friend?

Someone called out his name. Glover turned, smiled and waved. The posse of photographers swarmed and jostled each other for the shots. It felt like I was trapped in the middle of a rugby scum. And I was the only woman in there. And the smallest person too. A photographer pushed me in front of him, and hovered over me so that I too could take a snap. I was playing paparazzi. These guys were professionals.

That was a years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I learned then that I was not cut out to be an entertainment blogger. After spending hours memorizing the faces of visiting film stars I had not recognized the one right in front of me.

It got worst.

At a special screening I did not get why the slim guy entering the discussion stage, wearing a suit, dark glasses, and get this, gleaming white running shoes, got a standing ovation. It was Taye Diggs.

TIFF – the world’s biggest film festival – starts this week in Toronto. Black film stars are regulars at TIFF. I can still remember the champagne style buzz when Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet. Lupita Nyong’o was then a beautiful but unknown starlet. Their film 12 Years A Slave went on to make box office and Oscar history.

There are plenty of films with Black actors for viewing at this year’s TIFF and some of the stars will be in town. Look out for Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and Octavia Spencer.

TIFF films are categorized by region, and not by race or ethnicity. I scrolled through several regions to find what I was looking for. I wanted films with Black actors, shot by Black directors, with happy endings.

So here is my list of six happy Black films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:

  1. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Will the cook open her restaurant or will the rich playboy burn her dreams? Got to find out in this Nigerian romantic comedy.
  2. Felicité. A Senegalese film about a plucky Kinshasa nightclub owner learning how to ask for help, before her club goes under.
  3. Looking for Oum Kulthum. An Egyptian-Persian film about a legendary singing diva.
  4. Sergio and Sergei. How a Cuban radio operator connects with a Russian astronaut stuck in space as both wait out time.
  5. Sheikh Jackson. A comedy on how the death of Michael Jackson shakes a huge fan – an Egyptian imam.
  6. Grace Jones. A documentary on the Jamaican-American model, singer and out and out diva.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Hidden Figure: Race and Space on Film

Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.

Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.

As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.

African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing.  The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.

The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.

Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.

Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.

NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).

Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.

Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future.  Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love




Moonlight: Race and Space on Film

Moonlight plays with expectations is so many ways, as a coming-of-age drama of an African American boy. As expected the film is set in an urban landscape, in this case Miami in the 1980s. There are the requisite pastel colours, fancy cars and the drug trade. Crack fuels the life in the city. The urban ghetto space is familiar and therefore the story seems predictable.  It is not. Multiple waves of meaning and knowing ripples through the film.

In one moving scene the boy hero enters the sea. Held in the strong arms of his drug-don mentor, the child is suspended in the water, his limpid eyes flickering between fear and trust. His baptism could go either way. The scene churns expectations – it is simply a set up for swimming lessons. It is worth seeing the film for this scene alone.

It is so rare to see African Americans in an outdoors space, where they are enjoying nature and not fleeing from race-based violence. It is just as uncommon to see a Black working-class man as a loving father figure, gently encouraging a child to try something new.

Moonlight drowns another stereotype about Black men and the spaces they are expected to occupy. Black, gay and living in the ‘hood are a taboo combination in popular culture. The film tackles this head on.

The hero does not believe the message from his mentor that gay love is just another form of love. He believes the screams from his mother and the ghetto – gay men make perfect punching bags.

James Baldwin made all the characters White in Giovanni’s Room. Black gay men in love was such an explosive issue in the 1950s, that he could not even float the idea in his novel. Moonlight reflects how far we have come. It queers the ‘hood.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London