On Black Panther and Leading African Narratives

by Yabome Gilpin-Jackson

Black Panther and Wakanda fever have abounded these past few weeks. It’s been contagious and nearly impossible not to catch the bug if you are of African descent living abroad. I’m not even a traditional superhero fan. I can boast only of new recruit status since I’ve had children – and I’ve been swept up in it all too. You may be wondering why the euphoria and why this fictional movie in a fictional African country called Wakanda, about superheroes, no less, matters. After all, it’s all made up, isn’t it? It is all made up…and so are all of the rules we live by. It’s all story. What we call fiction serves the purpose of reflecting ourselves back to us in ways that allows us to tell, share and yes, provoke change in some of those made-up rules we live by, when a story helps us see how ridiculous they are. Narrative and storytelling can be an act of social change. Remember, we make social rules…and we are the only ones that can change them. As one of our contributors to the We Will Lead Africa volume 1 says: narrative drives perception and perception drives behaviour. Therefore, to drive lasting change for issues that no longer serve our societies, we must start with the narratives we tell and live by and the perceptions that are thus created – anyone working in any arena of behavioural change will tell you that attacking behaviour is like attacking symptoms of an illness and not curing the root. Change may occur in the short-term but it will not be lasting.

Blank Panther is brilliant as a movie that addresses social change issues at the level of narrative and perception. It flips dominant racial roles (“Great – another white boy to save”/ “Don’t scare me like that, Colonizer!”). It defies normative depictions of dark-skinned women in mainstream Hollywood movies (hairstyles were afrocentric and Team Natural all the way!). It flips colorism by casting very dark-skinned leads. Beyond this, the Black Panther movie shifts the usual mainstream Hollywood narrative of peoples of African descent. The characters are everything I know the people I grew up among and continue to see around me to be – intelligent, humorous, relatable professional leaders, facing all the usual challenges humans contend with: fear of the unknown, negotiating difference, social justice, love and hate. I would usually say “duh,” because of course this should be unremarkable. Any good story should do these things, right? And therein lies why this wholesome depiction of the nearly all-Black cast of characters in Black Panther is remarkable – because it is a far cry (other than the generic African Hollywood accent) from usual stereotypical narratives of the poor, inferior, war-torn/conflict-infested, diseased and defeated peoples of African descent in Hollywood’s mainstream depictions. And this movie was not made by an independent or black-owned studio, nor is it in a movie genre where this (such as nearly all-black cast) would otherwise make sense. As I have written elsewhere, Black Panther is fundamentally about a holistic representation of Black/African identity, where it is usually under or misrepresented. For these reasons, it is a statement movie worth celebrating. In this sense, it may be as epic as movies like Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner or the Spike Lee blockbusters of the 80’s and 90’s that propelled black entertainment industry into challenging mainstream movie norms.

Perhaps my favorite part of the social commentary that Black Panther is, is in the way that it brings together issues facing continental Africans and African-Americans/Diasporan Africans. The movie bridges both places and spaces. It touches on issues of abandonment and the divisions faced by African-Americans/Diasporan Africans as well as continental Africans. It acknowledges our collusion and complicity in slavery and injustices against our own (“where was Wakanda when…”/”Bury me in the sea with my ancestors who understood that death was better than bondage”). It shows ongoing injustices in continental Africa with Nakia’s opening mission to free modern-day Africans from capture. Wakanda in Black Panther may be a fictional country in Africa, but the parallel of the beauty and richness of the African continent is real. Wakanda’s vibranium may as well be the tantalum that powers our information tech hardware found in abundance in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its environs; or the Blood Diamonds of Sierra Leone; or Oil in Nigeria or any of the other vast natural resources that continue to quietly and often illegally leave the richest continent in natural resources. Africa’s resources fuel the world’s economies, while “Africa” remains depicted as “uncivilized, at war, and poor and helpless.” This, of course was the exact plight the fictional Wakandans were concerned would occur – it is in fact the reality of what Africa and Africans have faced since her “discovery.”

The lynchpin and perfect example of how current mainstream narratives of Africa drive perceptions in the world around us rests for me in the outtake. TChalla, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther himself, brings his plan to the UN General Assembly to share Wakanda’s technology with the world. After he speaks, someone in the assembly responds: “With all due respect, what does your country have to offer the world?” Our belief, at We Will Lead Africa, is that we can already begin to smile the way TChalla did in response – that smile that says: just you wait and see what’s coming. The prosperous position that the fictional Wakanda finds itself in is in fact in our reach. Leaders on the continent in every industry ARE already leading. STEM and Tech acceleration is flourishing. The private sector is growing. Women are leading. We are posed to have the youth and labour force to further accelerate development in the next decade through entrepreneurship, innovation and new industries for job creation. And for the first time since our independence movements, social media and citizenship organizing are driving demands for governance changes needed to advance the continent. That is why our calls for stories this year will focus on our advances in governance, tech and women’s leadership. We are ready to lead and own our own narratives. We are moving from a narrative where what we have to offer is taken while we are perceived as worthless, to one where we own and set the terms for what we choose to share with the world. So watch out world – We Will Lead Africa.

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