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ĀteaFebruary 27, 2018

Brightness and blackness: The effect of Black Panther on an African New Zealander

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Keagan Carr Fransch is a New Zealand-Zimbabwean actress studying in London. She writes about the breathtaking moments representation on screen can create for African diaspora.

*Contains spoilers for the film Black Panther.

Since whisperings began of Black Panther joining the Marvel cinematic universe in late 2015, the African diaspora was abuzz with excitement. As promo pics, trailers and sneak peeks of various production elements were released, this excitement grew into an almost desperate anticipation of something that could potentially change the game and positively impact the respectful representation of the black body in mainstream cinema. As an African-New Zealander who is also an actor, my anticipation was fuelled not by excitement, but by worry. As I watched the almost euphoric countdown to the film’s release over the past few weeks via the posting of various theories and hopes of my diaspora brothers and sisters on social media, all I could think was “what if it’s terrible? What if the accents are reductive and the CGI is wack? What if the story is uninteresting to the mainstream audience?”

Finally, after weeks of these nagging thoughts I was on the train into central London to meet some Zimbabwean friends with whom I was going to see the film, and I decided I needed to dig a little deeper and start attacking my worry and fear by calling it by its name: That any small flaw in the film would be used as ammunition by the powers that be to say: “See? Black-centric films simply don’t work. They have nothing substantial to offer the film industry,” calling into question (as it has all my professional life) my future and worth as an actor of African heritage. Sitting in the cinema with my Zimbabwean friends, watching the pre-show trailers, I thought, “I just need this to be a good film. I don’t need to have it deliver a powerful message – its mere existence and survival of critique would be powerful in and of itself. Please, just let this be a good film.”

Sarah Amankwah, Lucian Msamati and Hammed Animashaun in National Theatre’s Amadeus. Image: Marc Brenner.

About a week before I watched Black Panther I went to see a production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer at the National Theatre in London, starring British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati in the lead role as Italian composer and rival to Mozart, Antonio Salieri. Msamati was brought up in Zimbabwe, and as a child I had watched his work on stage in Zimbabwe with adoration for years. This production was important for me to see as an actor, yes, but more so as an actor of African descent. Seeing someone who had literally walked the same streets as me in Zimbabwe doing something on a main stage in one of the leading theatres of the world? That people were paying actual money to see? Incredible.

The paying people in question in the theatre with me that afternoon were, of course, mostly white people over 50, except for a few people of colour that I could count on my hands as I waited in the foyer for the doors to open. As I completed this ritual ‘colour count’ that I’ve been doing since I started making and attending theatre in New Zealand, my eyes settled on a person of colour also patiently waiting, no more than five metres away from me. I immediately recognised her: another Zimbabwean actor, Danai Gurira, who many will know as the enigmatic sword-wielding Michonne from the TV zombie thriller series The Walking Dead. She was in London for the premiere of Black Panther which had happened earlier that week, in which she plays the fiercely loyal Okoye, a general of the Dora Milaje – a band of warrior women that make up the royal guard of Wakanda, the home country of the Black Panther. I stifled a yelp and squashed the urge to rush to her in a flood of tears to shower her with praise and thank her in one uncomfortably long breath for the work she does in her capacity as a Zimbabwean-American actor with a platform to improve the skills of aspiring actors in Zimbabwe as well as empowering black female actors with her talent and visibility.

Zimbabwean actor Danai Gurira (left) plays General Okoye, of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s elite army of warriors. Image: Marvel Studios

I’m reminded of that moment in the 1997 children’s fantasy film The Borrowers where 14-year-old Arriety Clock – who feels lost and alone as one of the only borrowers in existence (or so she thinks) – accidentally discovers another borrower, who takes her on adventures, introduces her to an entire population of borrowers and leaves her filled with joy and hope for a future of companionship and possibilities. While I’m certain Ms. Gurira would have accepted my adoration with good humour and grace, I decided to not impose upon her afternoon and just let her be; after all, an African in the theatre should not be treated as a remarkable occurrence.

Settled in my seat at the cinema, watching the last of the trailers before Black Panther began, I remembered that moment at the theatre and craned my neck to see who else was there, wondering if lightning could strike twice and I would, by some miracle, see Ms. Gurira again. Looking around, I wondered what my viewing experience of Black Panther would have been like if I were viewing it in New Zealand, and I realised that I would not have felt the confidence to attend a Black Panther screening with other Africans dressed in their African best, as I had now. There is a large African population in New Zealand, but my reluctance to reveal myself in that way is not a question of numbers, but one of belonging. It’s to do with the fact that despite the large population, we’re still seen (or so I feel) as foreigners, immigrants, borrowers of time and space.

I recall feeling this way when going to watch Jordan Peele’s Get Out (starring British-Ugandan actor Daniel Kaluuya, who also appears in Black Panther) in Wellington last year. Speaking to a fellow African-New Zealander about why they hadn’t seen Get Out in the cinema yet, they said that they wanted to wait until they could get the DVD or it was released online so that they could feel free to scream and yell and laugh and cry out loud. I do recall my own ‘modest’ reactions to the film as I watched it with my white friends, censoring myself for fear of making the predominantly white cinema uncomfortable and somehow wearing out my welcome. That was not the case here with Black Panther, in this big Covent Garden cinema on a Saturday night. I did my “colour count” – the paying people in the cinema with me that evening were mostly black and young, with a few young white people that I could count on my hands.

I found the film to be narratively compelling, visually stunning, impeccably performed, and so lovingly produced – with such care for who it is representing – that tears flowed freely down my face for much of the film. This had little to do with whether or not I sympathised with the protagonist, and everything to do with the joy this film demanded we feel as people of colour, and the vibrant and vocal reception it received from everyone in the cinema. People were openly laughing, cheering, shouting, applauding and crying throughout the film, and not a single “Shh!” was uttered. Hundreds of young black people simply being able to see themselves on screen and express themselves authentically without fear of being seen as rowdy or uncouth or having complaints made against them for having pure, unbridled joy was indescribable, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to enjoy something so fully.

And so I wept. I wept at the jokes, of which there are many, deftly crafted and skillfully delivered so as to pack a meaningful punch; I wept at the narrative battle, not between good and evil, but between ideas of how we as Africans and members of the African diaspora can be useful to each other – unity, not division; and I wept at all the colour. Beautiful, brilliant colour. Production designer Ruth Carter and director Ryan Coogler choosing specific aesthetics from considered research as an homage to a number of existing tribes from different African countries meant the costume designs were not appropriations or generalisations, but rather, acknowledged inspirations and celebrations of peoples often ignored or wilfully misunderstood. The vivid colours throughout the film but specifically in Wakanda celebrates the brightness of spirit that we as Africans should be proud to show, and often don’t feel that we should.

Production designer Ruth Carter envisioned an African country untouched by colonisation and unafraid of colour. Image: Marvel Studios

In the MCU, Wakanda is a country that has kept its technological advancements and access to the invaluable metal and powerful resource vibranium hidden from the rest of the world, and chooses instead to allow the world to view them as a third world nation of farmers, for fear of the West taking advantage of them and stealing that which makes them great; to put it much more crudely than the film does, they fear colonisation and what would then be the inevitable loss of Wakandan identity. While in the fictional narrative this presents the problem of denying aid to those black communities outside Wakanda who may really need it, in the real world, where I watch the ideological debate through tears, it begs the question: what does it mean to be African? What does it mean to refuse the colonisation of one’s sense of self, one’s agency? What do we risk when we demand our own time and space?

We risk the world changing. The school I’m doing my postgraduate degree at in London has a room on campus called The Boardroom, where meetings and occasionally lectures take place. At first glance, this room seems like a typical boardroom with nothing remarkable to it – long wooden table in the centre, surrounded by several sleek office chairs, the walls lined with framed headshots of successful actors who are graduates of the school. But to someone of African descent walking in there for the first time, you notice that there is in fact something remarkable: of the many, many framed photos of loved and respected graduates, only two of the selected photos are of non-white actors. Two. Remarkable, horrific, and backward. This past week I was honoured to witness the results of the hard work of the student diversity officers who worked tirelessly for many months to have this rectified, and was present at the hanging of several framed photos of graduates of colour on those walls. What can we gain when we demand time and space? And then what can we offer the rest of the world?

The world is changing in both my homes, too. Jacinda Ardern as prime minister of New Zealand and mother-to-be is reminding us that women are never to be underestimated, and the recent peaceful change of leadership in Zimbabwe is proving that politics in Africa is not synonymous with savagery, as decades of news footage and Black Panther villain Klaw would have us believe.

As a member of the diaspora and specifically as a woman of colour I am desperate for positive images to aspire to, not negative images to fight against, and Black Panther offers this in spades. In less caring hands we could’ve been subjected to a regurgitation of the usual black female tropes – the Sapphire, the Jezebel, and since Wakanda is in Africa, the Venus Hottentot. But under Coogler’s direction we get the power, intelligence, and counsel of women. We get sensitivity to the needs of others and the companionship of women that goes beyond the screen and can be seen in the actors themselves, who have formed genuine joyful, supportive relationships with each other that can be easily picked up on in interviews and personal videos posted on their various social media accounts. We get the character of Princess Shuri, Wakanda’s top engineer whose own bright colour is her unapologetic genius, as she leads Wakanda on a path of technological invention and innovation, without a slave in sight – Afrofuturism at its most basic premise: that it is not outside the realm of possibility that we as Africans would be at the helm of advancement.

The Zimbabwean friends I watched Black Panther with are, like Shuri – and like most children of the African diaspora – high achievers (doctors and human rights lawyers), and so it was incredible to see them see themselves in Shuri, tears flowing as freely from their eyes as they were from mine. Shuri’s power is in harnessing vibranium as a weapon for good; looking at my friends, and the online reactions of the diaspora to Black Panther, I see that perhaps our vibranium is our sense of pride, our self-worth, our brightness, our blackness.

Breakout star Letitia Wright, right, (pictured with Lupita Nyong’o) plays T’Challa’s genius younger sister Shuri – an engineer that rivals Tony Stark’s ingenuity. Image: Marvel Studios

The world is changing and Black Panther has come as boost at a time when people of colour are no longer accepting the notion that we should feel grateful for scraps of recognition. We are no longer asking to borrow time and space. We are no longer hiding the brightness of our spirits. We are not asking for permission, we are demanding admission. In one of the final scenes, a politician from the West asks T’Challa/Black Panther, “What can a nation of farmers have to offer the world?”. T’Challa gives a knowing smile, as if to say, “You’ll see.” And you will. Just watch.

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