Not since Blade has a hero of colour held the limelight: the comic-book adaptation is both a perfectly timed political commentary and a celebration of blackness
Thu 1 Feb 2018 10.49 GMT
First published on Thu 1 Feb 2018 09.00 GMT
About a minute into the official Black Panther trailer, I realise I’ve been holding my breath. Hunched over, nose close to the screen, it’s as if I’m subconsciously trying to fold my body into Marvel’s cinematic universe. If this is a baptism, I want full immersion.
And if its record-breaking advance ticket sales are anything to go by, it seems I’m not the only one breathlessly awaiting the feature-length adventures of Wakanda’s king, T’Challa.
Part of the excitement is because cinemagoers finally have a black superhero who doesn’t feel like a consolation prize. Director Ryan Coogler’s all-black cast far surpasses previous paltry offerings to the black and brown people whose dollars and pounds turn films into blockbusters, yet who rarely see themselves represented with any depth or diversity on the big screen.
Not since the Blade trilogy, starring Wesley Snipes, has a hero of colour held the limelight. We have to go back to 1998, when the first part was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. Let’s not dwell on the other two.
But the fervour over this film is about so much more than mere representation: Black Panther is both a celebration of blackness and perfectly timed political commentary. “The movie plays to a romanticised version of Africa,” says David Roberts of Entertainlynx. “Magical kingdoms, ruled by emperors and untouched by the white man.”
In a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, 60 years since the Notting Hill race riots and 90 years since women aged over 21 got the vote in the UK, here is a movie set in an east African country, albeit a fictitious one, which is the most technologically advanced in the world.
Wakanda has never been colonised. As well as being a superhero, Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a religious figurehead and a political leader whose strength comes from his intellect, the superior technology in his suit, a herb that only he can eat without being poisoned, and the knowledge of his ancestors. It’s Afrofuturistic gold.
But the comic’s history hasn’t always been so political. In fact, having created the character in July 1966, just months before the revolutionary organisation of the same name was founded, Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby went to some lengths to distance their superhero from the politics of the day. In 1972, the character explained in a Fantastic Four comic why he was now called Black Leopard, saying his old name “has ... political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name, but T’Challa is a law unto himself.”
In the 70s, as new black heroes emerged from Blaxploitation films to grapple with the racial, social, economic and political issues of the day, Marvel’s writers once more attempted to make Black Panther more openly political. In one storyline, the Wakandan took on the Ku Klux Klan, but this braver political writing was apparently met with resistance or indifference.
No such indifference today. The Black Panther preview on YouTube has been watched more than 34m times in the countdown to the February release. The film’s stars are some of the most recognisable black actors, a combination of Africans from the continent and the diaspora: Angela Bassett plays T’Challa’s stepmother, Ramonda; Lupita Nyong’o is Nakia, a member of the Dora Milaje; Michael B Jordan is our villain, Erik Killmonger – tellingly, a Wakandan who grew up in exile; and, having already mesmerised audiences in 2017’s big black film Get Out, British-Ugandan actor Daniel Kaluuya joins the cast as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend. (I’d like to imagine that the pictures of Kaluuya wearing traditional dress at Monday’s premiere broke the internet in Uganda.)
Kaluuya saw the event as an occasion to celebrate his heritage, and so too will I when I head to my local cinema. I’ve pulled the gele out of the closet. A Maasai necklace sits next to it. My scarab beetle bracelet and Xhosa blanket complete the pile. Each item might be from a different part of Africa, but accuracy isn’t the point here: Black Panther belongs to us all.
• Eliza Anyangwe is a freelance writer and commissioning editor
After bearing witness to years of civil war and the devastation of the Ebola virus, the youth of Liberia can scarcely remember a time when their country was not in crisis. Now young people are stepping into a rebuilding process that aims to create a stronger state. The photographer Hugh Kinsella Cunningham found a nascent beauty industry exists in Monrovia to cater for this generation, and fashionable youth can be seen asserting their image, reflecting pride and hope for their country and culture
Liberians celebrate country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 47 years
It was not the first time George Weah had packed out a football stadium, but perhaps it was the most significant.
Liberians queued for miles to see the inauguration of the former footballer as their new president, celebrating their country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 47 years by dancing as they waited.
Expectations are sky-high for Weah, who grew up kicking a ball about his poor suburb of Monrovia and became an international star and Liberian hero through a distinguished football career at Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, winning the Ballon d’Or and Fifa’s world player of the year.
“I have spent many years of my life in stadiums but today is a feeling like no other,” Weah, dressed in white and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, told an ecstatic crowd at Samuel Doe football stadium in Monrovia. “I have taken an oath before you and before almighty God. Rest assured I will not let you down.”
“This victory would not have been possible without the youth of this country, the women of this country who made their living selling in the market,” Weah said. “This is your government.”
More than half of Liberians live in poverty, and it was these people who filled Weah’s rallies and turned out to vote for him, full of hope that his charmed life might somehow rub off on theirs.
“People believe George Weah has the magic wand,” said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst.
Bakri Nyei said Sirleaf had used her “remarkable leadership” to rebuild Liberia’s image and protect free speech and freedom of association, but her weakness in fighting corruption had been the downfall of her Unity party.
“People voted against the Unity party because of its failings on the economy and on fighting corruption,” he said. “The majority of George’s supporters are people living in squalor, in slum conditions. Communities are thinking that everything will be transformed, that they will have equal opportunity, better education, better healthcare. They see in George someone who is close to their life situations as he came from a slum community.”
In his first speech as president, Weah played to the gallery on corruption. “The way to directly affect the poor is to ensure our resources do not enter in the pockets of government officials. I promise to deliver on this mandate,” he said.
Sirleaf herself admitted last year she had failed to tackle corruption, blaming her defeat by what she had called “public enemy number one” on the “intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance”. Her popularity was further eroded by accusations of nepotism for appointing her sons to top government positions.
After 12 years in power, surrounded by west African presidents and dignitaries in dark glasses, Sirleaf was dwarfed by her gold and red velvet throne. To her right, on another but decidedly inferior golden throne and wearing a sunhat, sat Joseph Boakai, her vice-president; to her left sat Weah.
Weah and Sirleaf chatted together, but she appeared not to say a word to Boakai, whose presidential campaign she refused to support.
“Looking over the horizon I see a new era,” a boy in a shiny blue suit and red bow tie propounded with a theatrical flourish as Weah and Sirleaf looked on, adding that Weah promised “hope for every Liberian child, whether rich or poor”.
Beyond Weah’s own life story, Liberians have reason to believe their lives are about to be dramatically improved: Weah has said so repeatedly. Last month he vowed that “transforming the lives of all Liberians is a singular mission and focus of my presidency”.
VIPs futilely flipped their programmes to keep off the heat. African presidents including Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana were in attendance, but South Africa’s Jacob Zuma pulled out at the last minute, sending his water and sanitation minister instead.
Speaker after speaker took turns at the podium in a stadium named for another president who came from humble beginnings. Samuel Doe, who took power in 1980 in a military coup, also tapped into a seam of frustration at the failure of the ruling elite to improve the lot of the people, but his rule was dictatorial and autocratic, said Bakri Nyei.
“Doe took over through the barrel of a gun … but George worked his way through from a soccer career,” he said.
As she sold soft drinks to Weah fans, Nymah Kollie, a 28-year-old mother of two, said she wanted the new president to help local businesses and improve education for her children. “I want the [exchange] rate to come down so we will make profit and send our children to school,” she said.
Liberia’s two bloody civil wars have been over for long enough that most analysts do not foresee a resurgence of violence, but the new government does not represent an entirely fresh start. Side by side with Weah was his vice-president, Jewel Howard-Taylor, the former wife of the warlord and former president Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in Durham prison.