By J.K. Obatala
In the closing moments of â€œBlack Panther,â€� when the primary conflict is being resolved, a contingent of defeated male warriors fall on their knees, before a female general.
Everything that transpired previouslyâ€”the fight scenes, the car chase, the cultural camouflage, the dialogueâ€”was preparing the audience, mentally, for this moment.
Technically, the story is at the “point of resolution” (or “denouement”), when action has subsided, the problem is solved and order is restored.
But in this scene, something more is happening, than meets the uncritical eye: Something more than the mere â€œuntying of knotsâ€� in the plot, as French cinematographers say.
What the audience is experiencing now, and in some earlier sequences, is a highly insidious psychology, propagated through an appealing and pioneering cultural aesthetic.
Oddly enough, my interviews with Nigerians, and the foreign reviews I read, suggest that Black Pantherâ€™s pernicious symbolism, has apparently eluded almost everyone, including critics.
It is worth noting, early on, that although Ryan Coogler, its director, is African American, Black Panther is a release of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which is part of Walt Disney.
Despite the hue of its director, and a largely Black cast, therefore, the movie is not a â€œblackâ€� production, as suchâ€”an important point to keep in mind.
Two white writers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, conceived â€œBlack Pantherâ€� as a comic-book superhero, in 1966.
But Christopher Priestâ€”one of two African Americans who also wrote the character, at various timesâ€”told Comic-Book.Com, that the original superhero was a physicist, not a king.
In addition, principle characters, such as â€œNakiaâ€� (the heroâ€™s lover), â€œOkoyeâ€� (the general) and the â€œDora Milajeâ€� (female army) are also fictional transplants (Priest created the Milaje).
Interesting as well, is the supposition of Thomas F. McDow, in Quartz Africa, that the fictional â€œKingdom of Wakanda,â€� has its â€œreal historical roots in nuclear-age Congoâ€�.
It was, he contends, Leeâ€™s and Kirbyâ€™s reaction, to Cold War competition for control of the historic Shinkolobwe mine, where the U.S. obtained high-grade uranium, for the nuclear bomb it dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
Nevertheless, Cooglerâ€™s powerful aesthetic, with its African setting and science fiction format, could still push black cinematography, on both sides of the ocean, into a new paradigm.
Whether or not it does, depends on how filmmakers respond to the cultural hunger, and the quest for racial identity, evinced in thronged African theaters and black queues at U.S. cinemas.
â€œRaceâ€� and â€œCulture,â€� for instance, were the reasons Ezu Ojukwu, director of the award-winning historical drama, â€œâ€™76,â€� gave for going to see Black Panther.
â€œIâ€™m not a fan of superhero movies,â€� he admitted. â€œBut I went to watch Black Panther, with my wife. I wanted to see it for cultural values. I love the film, for one reason. It represents people of my pigmentationâ€�.
Pantherâ€™s focus on African culture has been inducing cult-like behavior. The Washington Postâ€™s Karen Attiah, a Ghanaian, noted that â€œBlack audiences in the United States [plan] special outfits and parties and [raise] funds to take children to see the filmâ€�.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Ayuko Babu, chief executive officer of the Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF), confirmed Attiahâ€™s observation. PAFF held a Special Screening on St. Valentineâ€™s Day, he said, at which patrons dressed like characters from the movie.
According to Babu, who is also a Juror for the African Movie Academy Awards, â€œAll the clothiers sold out their stock, because people came in by the hundreds, to buy costumes to wear, when they go to see â€˜The Black pantherâ€™!â€�
In his interview with Attiah, Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo reported a similar phenomenon in his country. â€œI have friends,â€� he said, â€œwho are going in full Masai wear to the theaters! They feel representedâ€�.
There were no â€œMasaiâ€� to be seen, at Silverbirdâ€™s chic Entertainment Centre, in Abuja, where I went to watch the movie. But I did spot Wale Delegendâ€”a graphics designer (not a tribesman!)â€”dancing happily out of â€œhall 03,â€� at the end of the screening.
â€œIt was Awesome,â€� he emitted, joyfully. â€œIt was awesomeâ€�. Word-of-mouth adverts, from people like Delegend, is apparently what attracted 13-year-old Afalobi Temiloluwe, who said she had â€œHeard good things about the movieâ€¦and wanted to comeâ€�.
Delegendâ€™s exuberance, combined with Temiloluweâ€™s tender age, exemplifies the challenge Black Panther, in particular, and foreign movies generally, pose to black intellectual leadership.
It illustrates the need for strategic rethinking, to ensure that the precepts of biology and psychology inform the creative process.
But before we continue, bear with me, while I explain the relationship between biology, psychology and filmmakingâ€”to put â€œBlack Pantherâ€� in perspective.
Biology is the science of life, while psychologists study the mind and how it affects behavior. Certain types of behavior are required, to sustain life: I.e., for individuals and groups to survive.
Ideally, the filmmaker explores survival issues and prescribes the proper behaviorâ€”conveying his prescription creatively, as â€œentertainmentâ€�. But what we call â€œentertainment,â€� is merely the energy of attractionâ€”inducementâ€”for viewers to watch and be influenced.
Photographer and videographer, Kerri Kleinschmidt, recently warned, on Linked-In, that â€œvisual and auditory stimulus can be transmitted from the movie screen to every person in the audience in some way or formâ€�.
An illuminating passage, in the prologue to Oscar-winning producer David Puttnamâ€™s book, â€œMovies and Money,â€� describes the darkened cinema house as â€œthat magic atmosphere where people are at their most vulnerable to impressions and to ideasâ€�.
As with all other cultural activity, a film scenario is crafted to transmit what evolutionary psychologists call â€œfitness relevantâ€� informationâ€”mainly to facilitates sex- and war-related activity.
Film, therefore, is a biological asset. It is also racialâ€”since the filmmaker is, or should be, concerned primarily with the survival and competitive advantage of his own kind, as defined biologically.
U.S. producers certainly are. My first jarring awareness of this, came at a meeting, in 1980, with the vice president of the Motion Picture Producers Association of America (MPPAA), at their office, in Northwest Washington, D.C.
During our discussion, the executiveâ€”a white, middle-aged male, whose demeanor projected wealth and powerâ€”apprised me, â€œconfidentially,â€� that â€œcertain things,â€� had to be in a Black movie, for investors to release money.
When the screen lit up at Silverbird, the V.P.â€™s admonition came to mind. What began to unfurl, was a classic zero-sum game, in which MCU gains financially and racially, at the expense of black intergroup bonding and reproductive security.
I will elucidate, using a few of the filmâ€™s more subversive tropes. First, the fictional kingdom of â€œWakandaâ€�â€”set in East Africaâ€”is at war with itself, instead of an external aggressor.
We are told that â€œWakandaâ€� is a powerful nation, whose advanced technology is based on â€œvibraniumâ€�–a mysterious metal that fell to Earth as a meteorite.
The closest thing the Kingdom has to an external foe, is â€œUlysses Klaue,â€� an avaricious arms dealer (Andy Serkis), who steals some of the vibranium. Yet it is â€œKillmonger,â€� the royal heirâ€™s arch rival, who dispatches Klaueâ€”not Wakandaâ€™s crack female intelligence unit.
The villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan ), is Pantherâ€™s second racially debilitating trope. Known as â€œN’Jadakaâ€� to Wakandans, from whom he partially descends, Killmonger grew up in Oakland, California, as an African American.
Nâ€™Jadaka precipitates a crisis, when he returns to challenge Tâ€™Challa, heir-apparent and the Black Panther superhero (Chadwick Boseman), to a ritual fight for the throne. After an ephemeral victory, Killmonger seizes power, temporarily.
When he is finally installed, Tâ€™Challa reaches out to young blacks, in Oakland. Coogler may have inserted this sequence, in an attempt at damage control, to offset the â€œKillmongerâ€� characterâ€™s â€œdivide-and-ruleâ€� symbolism.
Yet the symbolism of â€œKillmongerâ€� is innocuous, compared with the seditious psychology of the â€œDora Milajeâ€�. This is Wakandaâ€™s all-women assault and intelligence unit, which also serves as the Kingâ€™s bodyguard.
I strongly suspect, that the Dora Milaje is the real reason MCU made Black Panther: That â€œfemale fightersâ€� are employed as a cinematic device, for implanting ideas of aggression and dominance in the psyche of young black women, in Africa and elsewhere.
The history of U.S. race relations, suggests as much. As part of their strategy to dispossess indigenous Asiatic peoples, in the 1600â€™s, British settlers encouraged disaffection among native women. This practice remains fundamental, to American foreign and domestic policy.
It finds political expression in Andromeda Alliancesâ€”the treacherous bonding of black females and white males, which helped to sustain the slave system for 246 years. Andromeda diplomacy also explains the proliferation of U.S. backed â€œWomen Affairsâ€� ministries in Africa.
The â€œstrong African womanâ€� and black female/white male interaction, are prominent sub-themes in Black Panther. Viewers will note, that â€œNakiaâ€� (Lupita Nyong’o ) saved the life of CIA agent â€œEverett K. Rossâ€� (Martin Freeman), without any logical reason for doing so.
They will note too, the interplay between Ross and â€œShuriâ€� (Letitia Wright)â€”who developed the vibranium technology she uses to treat him. With Shuri controlling the tech and â€œOkoyeâ€� the commandos, women run the show in Wakanda!
Wakandaâ€™s clitoral hit squadâ€”the â€œDora Milajeâ€�â€”has a real-life antecedent in 18th century Dahomey, now neighboring Benin Republic. An early Dahomeyan king formed a female fighting force, about which feminists and their male valets have served up so much excreta.
With regard to the status of women, Cooglerâ€™s Wakanda does notâ€”as some commentators claimâ€”reflect â€œpre-colonial African reality,â€� when women â€œshared powerâ€� with men.
There is greater cultural and genetic diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa, than anywhere else on Earth. One can find social or cultural phenomena, to buttress almost any cause!
Within just two Nigerian States (Adamawa and Plateau), for example, youâ€™ll come across cultures in which: (a) Men and women speak different languages; (b) a wife can marry more than one husband; and (c) tradition formerly entitled a guest to sleep with his hostâ€™s wife!
Evolutionary psychology, explains each of these customs. But the point Iâ€™m making is this: If a filmmaker wants to create a freak show, such as Dora Milaje, he can always find ideas, in one obscure African culture or the other.
African women, generally, did not carry weapons or coddle white men. As for, Dahomeyâ€™s women warriors, they slept overnight with French soldiers, and slit their throats the next morning!
What comes through, in the travelogues of Western explorers and missionaries, is a pronounced African aestheticâ€”â€œbarbaric splendor,â€� in 19th century parlanceâ€”anchored in the beauty and femininity of black women.
Black Panther pulsates with homosexual symbolism. General Okoye and her troops are
potent metaphors of lesbian dominance, with their spears symbolizing male organs (or dildos.). (Porn producers, may yet sue MCU and Disney!)
Conspicuous as well, is a male background figure during the ritual fight scene, who is attired in a blue (or green) suit. He is sitting cross-legged, wearing large earrings and has bowls in his lips. Yet, in Africa, itâ€™s women who wear lip-plates. This is deliberate role confusion.
Peter Debruge, chief film critic at Variety, did a refreshing take on sexuality in Panther. First, he refers, intriguingly, to the submission of males to Okoyeâ€”then describes Guriraâ€™s â€œwig-throwingâ€� scene as â€œthe most gay-friendly Marvel [Cinematic Universe] moment to dateâ€�!
Insinuating, Debruge (who is white) designates the footage, in which Okoye towers over humiliated black men, as â€œthe filmâ€™s single most iconic shotâ€�. This is coded language. He cannot say, outright, what MCU and Disney are up to. But he dances deliciously around it!
Anyone who wants to know what is actually going on, psychologically, at this critical point in Pantherâ€™s plot, should watch â€œThe Devil And Max Devlinâ€�â€”a 1981 Disney production, starring black comedian, Bill Cosby.
In its denouement too, we see an â€œiconicâ€� long shot: Of Cosby, with horns and tail, wielding a trident and glowing red. As he bellows â€œBurn! â€¦ Burn! â€¦ Burn!â€� at Develin (a white male), the image of a black man, as the ultimate evil, is being burned deeply into the psyche of viewers.
Movies have a unique quality, which adds to the impact of Hollywoodâ€™s perfidy. â€œCinema,â€� Puttnam writes, â€œallows us to sitâ€¦watching people something like five times real size on the screen, and it enables us to borrow, as it were, their identitiesâ€�.
Neither blacks in Africa, nor those in the U.S.A., seem to appreciate the mental havoc â€œself-magnificationâ€� is capable of wreaking: Through implanting into viewersâ€™ psyche, images of oversized women, brandishing spears (symbols of masculinity) and knocking men about.
The implications, seem to have eluded both critics and exponents of Panther, mainstream as well as radical reviewers. Jelani Cobbâ€™s otherwise insightful and cogent essay in The New Yorker, for example, emphasizes culture and history over psychology and biology.
Further evidence of the malaise, is the weird commentary of Kenyan Patrick Gathara (carried in The Washington Post). In it, he slams Panther and rejects â€œraceâ€� (biology) as a criterion for being African: Legitimizing nearly 10 million Chinese and Indian settlers on the continent!
More soundly reasoned, are the reviews of Jimi Famurewa (empireonline), Russell Rickford (africasacountry.com) and Brian Lewis (progressivearmy.com). But here too, it is the values and political vision of the 1960â€™sâ€”not psychology or geneticsâ€”that informs these writings.
Psychology aside, Black Pantherâ€™s cultural content and unprecedented crowd appeal could very well morph into a racial assetâ€”a global matrix, in which a cooperative ethic that transcends national borders and continental divides, can crystallize.
Steve Gukas, director of â€œ93 Days,â€� a seminal study of Nigeriaâ€™s conquest of Ebola, believes Black Pantherâ€™s rich visual content, cross-cultural cast and afro-futuristic theme is helping to engender a common identity.
â€œThe film appeals toâ€¦many people, onâ€¦many levels,â€� he enthused, in a telephone interview. â€œIt hasâ€¦ created a narrative that so many people of African descent find compellingâ€¦They can see a bit of themselves in the movie; and this accounts for its world popularityâ€�.
â€œFor me,â€� Attiah exulted to Madowo, corroborating Gukas, â€œIt was like, â€˜Try to find your culture somewhere!â€™ It wasâ€¦[an] African history class. I could hear the Nigerian accent. As a Ghanaian, I was like, â€˜Thereâ€™s kente cloth,â€™ or, â€˜Look, Shuri is wearing aggrey beads!â€™â€�
Interviewed at Silverbird, Rasul Kassim, a Nigerian student at Arab Academy, Egypt, said he liked the idea of having Africa come together and excel. Emeka Onoguwe, a, Silverbird attendant, was likewise impressed with the â€œCombination of Africans from all over the worldâ€�.
Cooglerâ€™s cross-cultural ethic is captivatingly depicted, during the denouement, when Tâ€™Challa has finally won â€œNakiaâ€� back, after a period estrangement. What occurs, in this sequence alone, is well worth the N2,500 Silverbird charges to see the movie.
Their embrace and kiss, is a potent metaphor, politically and genetically. A black hero fights for a beautiful, dark-skinned woman and wins (rare in U.S. films); and, in real life, the male is African American, the female Kenyan.
Meanwhile, Prince Tonye Princewill, co-producer of â€œâ€™76,â€� predicts that â€œthereâ€™s going to be a lot of cross-cultural interactionâ€� as a result of Black Pantherâ€™s global impact.
In fact, he asserts, â€œPantherâ€™sâ€� influence is already traveling beyond film: â€œI mean, you have kids going to their parents and asking them, â€˜Why canâ€™t I be blackâ€™. I saw a video, the other dayâ€¦on a mixed-race kidâ€”who was unhappy that he was not a hundred percent black!â€�
Nigerian director Willis Ikedum, whose Mummy Dearest is also running at Silverbird, thinks the fallout from Panther is likely to be extensive. â€œI learned so much from watching the movie,â€� he allowed, speaking from Port Harcourt. â€œIâ€™ve already started sharing insight with my actors.
Princewill sees â€œlots of opportunities,â€� in the Black Panther experience, beyond acting and production. â€œOne obvious area,â€� he observes, â€œis merchandising and promotion. Itâ€™s a great film. But much of its impact is due to marketing. We should definitely look carefully at thatâ€�.
Ironically, there may not be â€œlots of opportunitiesâ€� left for Ryan Coogler at Marvel Cinematic Universeâ€”not creative opportunities, anyway. With this film, he may have â€˜exhausted all creative possibilities,â€™ as novelist John Barth once said, famously, about American literature.
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, Wakanda and the Black Panther character will return to the screen, later this month, without Cooglerâ€”as part of â€œAvengers: Infinity Warâ€�.
At the same time, his film now ranks 3rd, on the U.S. all time box-office earnings list.
So, what does Ryan Coogler do for an encore? A sequel? Would the success of his Panther provide sufficient leverage, to palliate the iniquitous symbolism that producers would surely infuse into a second Panther?
I doubt it. Once again, a movie must seek either to advance the racial interests of white investors and the producer or weaken the institutions and values of blacksâ€”unless blacks are paying the cost.
In Panther, the outcome of this classic zero-sum game is evinced, in lesbian symbolism (â€œDora Milajeâ€�) and the callously divisive â€œyou canâ€™t come home againâ€� message, which the â€œKillmongerâ€� character sends to African Americans.
Iâ€™ve never spoken with Coogler. But my knowledge of U.S. race relations, and of how Hollywood works, suggest that he had to accommodate these subversive tropes, for MCU/Disney to fork up the $200 million it costed to film Black Panther.
Jelani Cobb, on his part, says Coogler told a New York audience, â€œI have a lot of pain inside me. We were taught that we lost the things that made us Africanâ€¦[But] thereâ€™s no way they could wipe out what we were for thousands of years. Weâ€™re African.â€�
Cobb reports further, that the director made it clear to MCU â€œup front,â€� that his version of Black Panther would â€œremain true to those political elementsâ€�. Cooglerâ€™s identity and expressed ideals, thus rule out â€œKillmongerâ€�â€”which is, in all likelihood, a producer-imposed character.
This, then, is the end game: As a director of African descent, Coogler has an evolutionary obligation, to film scenarios that enhance cohesion and external threat-perception, among those who share his biology.
Panther is a step forward. But creative possibilities are limited, within Marvelâ€™s biologically alien universeâ€”where compromises are imposed, which betray the trust of naÃ¯ve and vulnerable black viewers.
So, it may be time for Coogler to disengage from Disney/MCU and look for a more accommodating universe: One seeded with his own biology.
A young male I intercepted, at Silverbird,â€� epitomizes both the vulnerability of the African psyche, and the opportunity for a black, biology-conscious filmmaker, to reshape it.
â€œYouâ€™re rushing in to see â€˜Pantherâ€™,â€� I offered, as he approached.
â€œYes. I donâ€™t want to miss the opening,â€� he urged, anxiously.
â€œWhat are your expectations?â€�
Already moving away, the youth stoppedâ€”then turned, to face me. Clear, intelligent eyes glared quizzically, through the gloam of â€œhall-03â€�.
â€œNothing,â€� he allowed, striding off again, â€œIâ€™ll just let it blow my mind!â€�
I watched the young male disappear into the darkened entranceâ€”and imagined him on his knees, before â€œGeneral Okoyeâ€� and the â€œDora Milajeâ€�.
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