How Black Panther Explores Pan-Africanism

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Photo of Erik Killmonger in Black Panther

The Hype is Real….Wakanda Forever

Y’know sometimes people hype up a movie that you think it can never meet expectations. Gladly, this is not one of those times.

Black Panther is probably the freshest superhero movie to come out in a long time. While the cash grab that is the Extended Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown rather stale, Hollywood is continuing to pump superhero movies at a rapid rate. But what differentiates Black Panther from its peers is that Black Panther is that it innovates with its subtext.

It is not just a superhero film. It’s a film that addresses the black experience in America. And one that particularly takes its cues from hiphop. It poses the same hard existential questions about identity. Take, for example, the film’s main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. He’s complexed and layered. In one of the most talked about scenes, Killmonger equates prison to slavery. There is a depth here not found in many mainstream Hollywood movies – never mind superhero blockbusters.

Black Panther has a frank discussion about identity and representation woven in its narrative. And Killmonger is the epicenter from which the audience is able to find stable footing in Wakanda. Raised in Oakland, he is disconnected from his African heritage, losing his father early in his life, and goes on a misguided journey. But the audience understands his motives. The antagonist is not really a bad guy. He’s almost a tragic hero.

In Poetics, Aristotle lays out the characteristics of a tragic hero as follows; he is prideful; he creates a feeling of empathy within the audience as they feel they could befall similar fortunes, and his misfortune is a result of an error in judgement.

Killmonger is the equivalent of the rapper who has made bad decisions in the streets and has been able to transform his narrative into a position of power. His story is one of resilience. His swag reminds us of a Jay-z or Sean “Diddy” Combs; in that he’s a black man with power.

But aside from the depth of the characters, I felt that representation was another feature that really made the film stand out. Representation is important. Angela Bassett, a legend in her own right plays the Queen mother. A role that she seemingly was born to play.

Hero T’Challa being played by Chadwick Boseman was also a great choice in casting. No one knew what to expect as he is an actor of a certain age. The actor has represented icons James Brown and Jackie Robinson in the past. Now, he is immortalized by the role of Black Panther.

The addition of the South African dialect present in the film also gives it an air of authenticity. While the audience is still captive in the fictional Marvel Universe, there is a real connection to real human roots being played out here. The dialect is an important choice. South Africa was known as the most racist country on Earth at one point in time. By using the South African dialect, it inherently makes a pro-black, anti-racist statement.

What Black Panther does really well is that it uses cultural tropes that have a black origin and effuses them into the narrative. This leads me to my next point.

The Hiphop Element

If you’re really about this hiphop culture, I think you’ll love this movie. One of my favorite parts of the character backstory is that Killmonger grew up and identifies with the Oakland as home. Oakland is a very important area for hiphop with the Bay Area  being a predominantly black community, with a very prominent hiphop community. The Bay Area’s hiphop scene had a whole subcultural movement with Hyphy music. For the average viewer, this may be a throwaway scene. But for the black community and hiphop community, it’s meaningful in how it informs how we see the character of Killmonger.

Killmonger grew up in a culture that learned how to make something from nothing. While the Bay may be known to poverty-stricken, it also has a swag, and cultural code to maneuver.

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the scene where the heroes were in South Korea was also, in part, a hiphop signifier. South Korea too has a large hiphop scene that has expanded internationally. And I think there’s perhaps an affinity between these two groups. So the choice of location was deliberate.

Personally, this was when I realized that film adheres to a unifying hiphop code, rather than a strictly pro-black, pro-African code. Don’t get me wrong – it absolutely has elements of Pan-Africanism. But the hiphop elements and Pan-African sentiments are not mutually exclusive. Hiphop is filled with references to Pan-Africanism. One need only look to CyHi the Prynce’s Nu Africa, for a recent example. So, I would argue that the film is grounded in hiphop roots and not solely a pro-African statement.

This also may explain why so many white people went to the see movie as well. Hiphop has always been a sort of vanguard for the black experience in America, and in truth has become a way many white people have come to better understand what it means to be black in America. By making this film infused with hiphop, there is a cyclical effect in that it promotes hiphop and because the movie is pro-black – it also reclaims hiphop as part of the black identity.

In Summary, Black Panther is an above average Marvel movie that lived up to expectations. Proper representation was adhered to, and the film benefits from its subtext and themes. Particularly, those that use a hiphop lens to better examine the sociocultural phenomenon. Amongst these ideas, most prominently featured of course is Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism is an important concept in the black community. And this film explores this ideology with graceful hands. At the end of the day, the film is entertaining and stands on its own. The film isn’t flawless, but it succeeds in its ambitious goals.

A-

 

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