by Dom Jones
If you’ve always seen someone who looked like you, spoke like you, had a semblance of similarity to where you’re from, how you were reared, your traditions, customs, and your general way of life on television and in film, then you don’t need a movie like Black Panther, and you may not understand why some of us do. Representation is a privilege that has eluded many different groups in media (and politics and education, but I digress), so if some of us (BLACK FOLKS, if you still haven’t put that together) can put a drop of salve in the gaping wound that is our LACK of representation, we will. We will dress in our finest gear from the Motherland (or wear all black – this is also acceptable), we will flock to theaters in droves, carrying djembe drums, doing tribal or contemporary dancing (twerking is accepted, this is a safe space), giving high fives in the movie, and shouting “YEEEEEESSSSS!” during critical moments, and for some of us, even shedding tears. We will do all of this because Black Panther isn’t just a fictional Marvel comic turned movie: much of it is the lived experience of a diaspora whose stories have been blurred and/or buried by stereotypes and damaging archetypes told by people we don’t know and never invited to the cookout.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read comics, so I don’t have the facility with the back story of Black Panther as a character that others may have. I walked into the movie just hungry for more of the aesthetic and grandeur that I’d witnessed in pictures, interviews, and previews leading up to the film’s release. From the first few frames, I connected with the film, as the name of my hometown came onto the screen, and I yelled, “AYYYYYYYYYE!” which is a traditional Oakland greeting, exclaim, and/or salutation. I was then drawn in immediately by the diasporic dichotomy being illustrated: Africans in Africa thriving in every facet of society, culture, and tradition, but hiding themselves under the guise of being a third world country and Africans in America being victim to oppression and colonialization and dying on the vine. This was a very real thing to watch for me. Myself and many of my friends have often mused on what we as American-born Africans may have been like if our ancestors had never been forced to come to this country. We have friends who were born and raised in Africa who can speak their native tongue, know their tribe, know their lineage in a way that we don’t. The bitterness, resentment, and misunderstanding that we see between Killmonger and T’Challa in the film is a real thing between Africans and African-Americans. There is a divide, a chasm that we didn’t create, but must repair before we can truly manifest our collective greatness.
In this way, the storytelling in the film glistens. WE SHINE in this honesty without desecrating either group. Killmonger is STILL A KING, even having been abandoned. HE IS STILL ROYAL, even as the antagonist. For me, he never becomes a villain because I know the monster who created the circumstances under which Killmonger had to live, and it is not T’Challa’s father. Killmonger has been prey to American institutions that have stalked black men and women in America since the middle passage. Even in their battle, I can still see and feel the brotherhood between T’Challa and Killmonger because they both love their people. Their perspectives about how to show that love differ based on their experiences. The same is true for W’Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya and M’baku, played by Winston Duke.
THE WOMEN OF BLACK PANTHER ARE EVERYTHING. They are the vein and blood that keep the heart of the film beating. From the matriarch of Wakanda (played by Angela Bassett) to the burgeoning Chief of Technology (played by Letitia Wright), these women are calling out the men for foolishness, calling on the men to correct it, and ALWAYS of service to Wakanda. Without them, the film would lose its luster, and the men would destroy themselves. They are the voices of reason as much as they are warriors. AND BOY ARE THEY WARRIORS. The film centers women as both feminine and fighter, both gentle and general. More than anything else in the movie, this is when I see myself, where I am represented, where my story has begun to be told.
I’m not as hyped about the soundtrack as I’ve heard others flock to it, but there are some gems. Calling upon Kendrick to lead the soundtrack makes sense, as he is basically the patron saint of hip-hop right now. For me, Kendrick shines more as a facilitator than a rapper on this project, though. Some of my favorites are “X” where Schoolboy Q lets it all go and Kendrick holds him up with the hook, “Are you on ten yet?” Ab-Soul’s “Bloody Waters” benefits from the voice of Anderson Paak, but doesn’t necessarily need it, as Ab is rapping the way I LIKE TO HEAR RAP: crazy rhyme scheme, diverse rhythmic placement (phrasing), and authentic bravado. This is probably my favorite track on the soundtrack. Zacari’s “Redemption” is so danceable and brings the joy of black music (especially the call and response) to the forefront. It is the griot track of the soundtrack. Mozzy’s “Seasons” was important because it centered African language in a similar way to the film. And even though I couldn’t understand the words, I felt connected to it.
NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BLACK PANTHER SCORE! It had many of the same elements of great scores (the grandeur of big horn parts and the like), but what really set it apart again was the use of African language (my friend, Kelitah, tells me that it was mostly Zulu and there was also some Swahili and Xhosa). Have you ever heard THAT MUCH DRUMMING in a score? Me neither. It was exciting and added to the authenticity of the film for me. I would have loved to hear some of the rappers on the soundtrack rap over the some of the score. To me, that would have connected everything in the most unexpected, but brilliant way.
If your music, culture, and community has always been centered in the mainstream, then you may not understand Panther Pandemonium right now. But as the film breaks records, it also breaks barriers, and is a serious critique on the way Africans are treated worldwide by the establishment (where we must hide our success to be safe) and the way we treat each other (where we feel we must leave each other behind to be safe). I watched as each group spoke to the deep need for safety, the feeling that it was lacking unless communities siloed themselves, and I felt represented again. If you’ve never needed a superhero to save yourself or your people, then Black Panther can just be a fun, amazing movie for you. For me, it represents a magic that still burns ever quiet among my people, hushed by the fear that if it raises its voice too loud, we won’t be safe anymore. It means more to me because we need a superhero. We need Wakanda. And if we can push past our fear, past our differences, and heal our misunderstandings, I believe we can have it.
HAVE YOU SEEN BLACK PANTHER? WHAT DID YOU THINK? SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS!