Almost every month, I join a small group of anthropologists from the VU to go to the movies. Last month, we went to the action movie Black Panther to do a little bit of fieldwork from a soft, lazy cinema chair. Combining a relaxing evening with collecting data for a blog post has little in common with the hardship of fieldwork that anthropologists write about in their ethnographies. No mud on my boots, thank you very much. Let the arm chair anthropologist return, this time freed from an ethnocentric view on culture and armed with 3D glasses.
Black Panther has been euphorically embraced for obvious reasons: Hollywood finally and for the first time produced a film made by a black director and cast. And there is more to be happy about: director Ryan Coogler and his crew chased Afro-pessimism out the door. Africa is not a poor or exotic continent in Black Panther, on the contrary. Wakanda is a proud, prosperous and technologically advanced nation where people fly around in hovercraft shuttles. The inhabitants of futuristic Africa salute each other with crossed arms and clenched fists while yelling: Wakanda forever!
While Black Panther challenges misconceptions of Africa, the film also falls back on ingrained clichés of culture and ethnicity. The smashing costumes are a feast for the eyes. They are also a curious mixture of well-known sartorial styles from all over the continent. It is interesting how easy it is to buy into this hodgepodge of stylish textiles, dress and body paints as part of a shared ‘African’ culture. Or to accept that, “..in a futuristic Africa, a Himba woman looks similar to how she appears in National Geographic magazine” as Ainehi Edoro and Bhakti Shringarpure write on the website Africasacountry.com. The conception of African cultures as rooted in tradition, as different and yet similar, is so commonplace that most viewers might not question it. (Imagine a film situated in a utopian European country where inhabitants combine Scottish kilts with Dirndls and Volendam costumes with Viking helmets. What will the many film critics say who now remained silent on the sartorial melting pot in Black Panther?)
Wakanda is the epitome of technological progress and yet, at the same time revolves around timeless ‘African traditions’. Blood plays a central role in Wakanda’s century old rituals and some viewers in the cinema, including ourselves, giggled when a potion was prepared with pestle and mortar. King T’Challa solves the challenges to his throne according to ‘tradition’. The king voluntarily and temporarily surrenders his magical powers when he fights his rivals man to man, shield to shield, in ritual combat (figure 2). By solving world problems the way two boys fight over a pair of marbles, the king puts Wakanda and the rest of the world at great risk. If his troubled rival Erik Killmonger wins the battle, he might instigate a world war.
King T’Challa in ritual combat with Erik Killmonger
The most disturbing aspect of the film, however, is the idea of Africa as divided into bounded tribes, each with their own, unique culture. The film opens with the myth of a gorilla goddess who brought peace to the five divided tribes in Wakanda. Tribal conflict, the film suggest, is inevitable and always lurking beneath the surface in Africa. This colonial trope is confirmed when one of the tribes suddenly turns itself against the king. This is not to say you should remove this film from your bucket list. It has interesting political layers and challenges conventional racial hierarchies and stereotypes. We all loved the powerful women who outsmart the men and are the real heroes of this film. And the film is entertaining, as a good action movie should be: a number of scenes are truly spectacular and some costumes breathtakingly beautiful. Our film club is looking forward to part 2 since the moment Marvel studios confirmed a sequel: Wakanda forever!
Rhoda Woets is an Assistent Professor at Utrecht University College