This is an opinion piece written by Paul-Louise Julie, author of The Pack comic series on how he felt seeing Black Panther on screen for the first time! Louise-Julie has given me permission to share his thoughts on Say Word To The Nerd. Please keep in mind that this is an opinion piece. Mild spoilers ahead.
First, let me clarify that I’m a huge Black Panther fan – or rather, a fan of what the Character promises to be on paper. That is, a Warrior/Monarch of an AfroFuturist nation that also happens to be void of any Colonial influence as well as the most advanced on the planet. Created by Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, the Black Panther really shook the stage with the groundbreaking concept of a Black Superhero. Especially at a time when the Western perception of Africans as lesser humans was being radically challenged. Interestingly enough, what made the character so iconic wasn’t the political meaning of his skin color in American Comics but the promise of something much more revolutionary: Wakanda. On paper, the secluded East-African Nation of Wakanda is supposed to be the most advanced nation on the globe – technologically centuries beyond the West. It also bears the distinction of having never been conquered by a foreign power. That means no European or Colonial influence whatsoever – something the modern world has never seen. As the King of Wakanda, the Black Panther is also one of the most intelligent and martially skilled men in the world.
All of these accolades make for a very ambitious concept to say the least. Unfortunately Marvel’s track record in fulfilling this promise has been lackluster to inconsistent. In my opinion, very few writers and artists ever managed to capture the extraordinary elements of the Black Panther in a believable way. Which brings me to the character’s first Cinematic Appearance, Captain America: Civil War. While most moviegoers are raving about the Wakandan King’s silver screen debut, I’m not one of them. To better explain my frustration, here’s a little context: I’ve been waiting for a Black Panther film a very long time. Needless to say, the property had been in development hell since the 90’s. Wesley Snipes, one of the most qualified person to play this character, lobbied for decades to get it done -even going as far as trying to secure the rights and produce it himself. Due to Hollywood politics, rights issues, and overall red tape, Snipes’ attempts were fruitless. Personally, I feel the powers-that-be knew that a well-done Black Panther franchise would dominate the MCU for years to come This evidently did not correlate with their plans for the character. (Not to mention they preferred Snipes as Blade).
The dark reality behind the Black Panther is he’s a patsy – a false promise. His real purpose is to be wheeled out when Marvel wants to avoid being accused of whitewashing or racism. If Snipes played that role and had the creative control he wanted, T’Challa would have had the on-screen presence required of the Character. He would have had the bearing of a Warrior and stature of a King. Snipes’ unsurpassed Martial arts background would have brought new dimension to the character as he incorporated his vast knowledge of various African fighting styles to the fight scenes. But it was not to be. Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t do to have him upstage Cap or Tony Stark (even though he’s supposed to in the comics) so he had be brought down a notch. In Civil War, the fight scenes were great but I would have preferred to see a better incorporation of African Martial arts. That said, Thor was also toned down considerably compared to his Comic counterpart so its a passable write-off.
However, my biggest problem with T’Challa’s casting had nothing to do with his martial prowess. Personally I have nothing against Chadwick Boseman, but there is a reason he was cast and it wasn’t for the right reasons. He can do certain roles but depiction of royalty is definitely not one of them. He exudes no visual presence on screen suggesting a warrior or a Prince. He also possesses no emotional gravitas when delivering his lines making the character come off as a vengeful little boy rather than the calculated warrior he’s supposed to be. When portraying royalty, there’s a certain way you talk, walk, and hold yourself. A perfect example is Thor and Loki in the Thor franchise. Even when Thor is in plain mortal clothes, you still get the sense he is of noble birth and has the upbringing to match. The strength in his bloodline is clearly apparent and gives a glimpse as to what Odin or any of his ancestors must have been like in their prime. Chris Hemsworth skillfully brought that confidence to screen. His brother, Loki, possesses that same princely confidence making him an instant fan-favorite. Chadwick’s T’Challa on the other hand, is just there to be there. The studio should have chosen an actual East-African actor or at least one with direct lineage to that region who can bring the complex nuances necessary to that character. Sorry if I don’t buy the excuse of there being few qualified African actors to choose from. All one has to do is go to England and you’d see a multitude of unknown classically trained actors who would have brought much more authenticity to the role.
The mis-portrayal of T’Challa’s royal identity goes further than Chadwick’s acting and into the script. At no point did I see him treated like a King by the other characters. Take his father T’Chaka’s assassination for example. You’d think that the most advanced country in the world would have much better security measures in place to protect their Monarch and Head of State during his first International Appearance. But let’s ignore that for a second – from the moment T’Chaka was killed, Wakandan security and secret service should have been all over the place and T’Challa removed from sight. His bodyguards, the Dora Milaje, were no where to be seen until he was being escorted much later to his car. Instead the murdered Wakandan monarch is simply put in an ambulance as T’Challa sits on a bench conversing with Black Widow. Given her background, its very sloppy having a foreign monarch conversing with a known assassin unsupervised. Not a bodyguard was in sight. The point is that Black Panther or not, there are certain protocols that go into place when dealing with a Head of State’s security, especially when dealing with a foreign monarch in an attempted assassination. Even after the infamous tunnel chase, T’Challa is simply scooped up in the same van as Cap & Bucky and brought back to the UN facility. He is then snidely told by Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) that he’ll be “given an office instead of a cell and suggests that he stay in it”. The King of Wakanda is then seen sitting in the lobby like a kid outside the Principal’s office. All I can say is they wouldn’t dare speak to Prince Harry in such a way.
Another issue I had with the film was the use of Xhosa (spoken by over 7.6 million people) as the “Wakandan language”. I found it to be in very poor taste. You don’t take an existing language, reduce it to a fantasy one, and tell everyone this is a “good thing”. People would have a problem if Hollywood decided to use French as a fictional “Atlantean” language claiming that it feels more “authentic”. Naturally the attempt would be seen as laziness and rightfully so. If you’re going to use a fictional language then make one. If not, don’t bother. The real problem is when dealing with African languages, it all sounds the same to Americans. It is still regarded as “gibberish” and therefore merits minimal craftsmanship in a fictional portrayal. The same goes for the accents, Chadwick’s was all over the place. I know they’re calling it improvisation but it’s clear he had no real direction to begin with. The result came off as very awkward. Especially to some who are familiar with various African accents across the continent. What they should have done is taken into consideration the existing languages of the East-African cultures in the region they placed Wakanda in. They should have hired professional African linguists to create a believable language with authentic roots exclusive to that region. Only then would it have been appropriate to derive an accent from that.
But my biggest beef with this film is Wakanda. This fictional civilization is the Golden ticket for the Black Panther Franchise. What makes Wakanda so unique is that it’s one of the earliest offerings of Afrofuturism – a tall order especially for a post-colonial world which has no idea what that would look like. Needless to say, I was very disappointed. The only time Marvel has ever remotely achieved this was in John Romita Jr’s portrayal of the Black Panther in the early 2000’s. (Funny how both it and the BET animated series that followed were abruptly canceled). The core issue with Wakanda’s portrayal is the ignorant Western philosophy that Africa is one cultural blob so one can essentially cherry-pick various elements from random African cultures and mix them together in an artistic gumbo because “it looks cool”. Ironically, this is what some Africans accused African Americans of doing at events such as AfroPunk Festival, calling it appropriation. While I disagree there due to the context and their heritage, this is a very different situation. Here, Marvel is actually creating an African nation on the Continent. Fictional or not, there are certain rules that apply. This may seem inconsequential to some but allow me to explain. There were times in the comics for instance, where at one point you would have Egyptian architecture presented as “Wakandan” while the king’s advisor was wearing a Masai head-dress. Meanwhile, mere guards would wear the same head dress as another official wears Yoruba Faceprint and a Western three-piece suit. The point is- it’s all over the place. Instead of organically designing a unique, solid culture pertaining to the region, creators would just mix random elements from cultures across the continent and say “Well, Wakanda influenced them all”. While the attempts are well-intentioned, they rarely stick the landing because no one’s doing the world-building necessary for such a unique civilization. When I saw T’challa’s jet in the film or the glimpse at Wakandan technology in the post-credit scene, there was nothing stylistically African about it. The Western misconception is that technology is technology. This simply isn’t true. Ironically this was illustrated in Thor: Dark World during the seen where Jane foster points out that their “Soul Forge” is actually a “Quantum Field Generator” on Earth. It’s the same concept but very different iterations depending on the civilization. The same idea should apply to Wakanda. Their technology would look vastly alien to us yet innately African because that’s where its roots lie.
Throughout Black Panther’s history, Marvel’s depiction of what they imagine Wakandan clothing would look like is severely disappointing. In essence, they usually consist of a cross between African cuts and modern Western clothing. Even T’challa’s “Wakandan” attire during the post-credit scene in Civil War was nothing more then a mix of ethnic elements and a Western 3-piece suit. That alone makes no sense…the modern-day “suit” has its roots in European clothing – technically tracing back to European Medieval suits of armor. Fun-fact: their century long evolution started when Noblemen wanted to maintain a Knightly silhouette in their daily attire without walking around in armor and livery all the time. But obviously, in a post-colonial world I wouldn’t expect people to even consider this. Instead we try to reconcile western standards of formal wear with traditional “ethnic” patterns. The result usually comes off mismatched and cheap. Hence why the Wakandan clothing in the current Coates/Stelfreeze comic run look very plain and far from futuristic. I find it hard to believe that an African civilization -advanced without any European influence- would align themselves to European standards of what is considered “modern wear”. Africans traditionally have very different criteria and ideas on what their diverse cultures consider to be “formal” so it’s logical that the Wakandan civilization would evolve along those lines. The result would be very different. Instead they treated the would-be Afrofuturist Nation like any post-colonial African state by acknowledging Western influences.
It really bores down to the poor Visual development involved with anything Wakandan. Ironically, my frustration is matched by my admiration of the Black Panther’s suit design. It’s flawless and exemplifies exactly what Afro Futurism should look like. However, that same innovative approach cannot be said for the brief glimpse we got of Wakandan design. Although inconsequential to some, it speaks volumes. Even the Statue of the Panther at the end irritated me: the chipped-in aesthetic looked very primal and not in the good way. Once again, western ignorance confuses Primitivism with African aesthetic. For those that don’t know, African sculpture is very stylized (Fang Masks) sometimes cubist (e.g. Benin Bronzes), and even minimalist at times (e.g. Zulu). In other words, that is not how that statue would have looked. Once again, look at John Romita Jr’s run on BP to see how it’s properly done. My point is that in a world where Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor showed that Marvel is fully capable of detailed world-building, the same attention was not applied to the Black Panther or Wakanda. The company continues to make bad choices when selecting creative teams to further the franchise – both in film and in comics. For this reason, the current Comic run of the Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze is a huge letdown for me. When you write a story about an Afrofuturist nation and your main inspiration is “…the peasant rebellions that wracked Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages & the American Civil War” there’s a problem. We shouldn’t always have to turn to the West for inspiration. In parallel, Stelfreeze’s art, though visually stunning falls flat with his bland design of Wakanda as well as it’s people. I’m equally concerned for the character’s on-screen direction with Ryan Coogler’s election as the Black Panther’s director. In reality, the studio wanted a black director so badly for this huge PR stunt of a movie that they hopped from one popular Black director to another. Previous nominees included F Gary Gray and Ava DuVernay. Ava respectively declined because marvels trademark creative control would eventually impede on her style of film making. A shame, especially bas she was teh most qualified to direct in my opinion.The studio finally chose Coogler following his success with Creed. While a decent film, it is important to note that Sylvester Stallone is notorious for shadow-directing. There is nothing about Coogler in his work or interviews that tells me he can handle a world and story of such imaginative detail.
In conclusion, I simply was not impressed with the Black Panther’s cinematic debut. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the right creative team was behind his portrayal both onscreen and in other media. The Fog of Post-colonialism coupled with Western ignorance has people applauding simply because they’re grateful to see an African superhero in the MCU. However, they fail to see how it continues Hollywood’s misinterpretation of Africans. Just because it’s a step in the right direction (meaning positive portrayal) doesn’t mean that we should settle for mediocrity. But at the end of the day, I’m just one Indie creator with an opinion and this is Marvel’s property. They created it and as such, have every right to handle it as they please. All I can do is expect a good return on an ambitious promise.
Paul Louise-Julies latest work: The Pack Issue 3 can be found here down below
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