Essays, Not Rants! 309: Reframing a Narrative
So it’s been some time (a week-ish) since Black Panther came out and the mental nerding out has sufficiently subsided that I can have some actual Rational Thoughts about the movie beyond "wow it’s so cool and Okoye is everything." And, go figure, it’s coming down to a lotta thoughts about representation.
And how representation is happening.
But first, a detour to Star Wars. My favorite movie series seems to have enacted a moratorium on white guys as new protagonists. Which is dope, and means that we now have folks like Daisy Ridley and Diego Luna being main characters in Star Wars. And John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Donny Yen, Riz Amed, and, look, I could go on. But you get the point.
Now, Star Wars is fundamentally a fantasy (a space fantasy) that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and so its world is decidedly removed from reality, albeit one inspired by a mishmash of Western and Japanese myths with a healthy helping of 1970s haircuts. You’ve got samurai-monk Jedi Knights running around alongside fighter pilots fresh outta World War II. Part of the fun of seeing women and people of color get the spotlight in Star Wars is seeing them in these archetypes; a woman gets to be the Jedi Knight and a Latino’s the hotshot pilot! Star Wars is the story of the everyman, and opening the series up to diversity means that we get to change the image of said everyman. Also, it means there’s room for folk who look like me in the world, and that’s really cool.
Black Panther is also a fantasy, but it’s one set on Earth (this Earth). Wakanda may be a fictional nation, but its culture is one that draws on real-life African countries. Which makes sense: if you’re gonna have a high-tech futuristic nation set in Africa, you darn well oughta get inspiration from real-life African countries.
And the movie is so much better for it.
By thrusting African aesthetics into the forefront, Black Panther is making a statement about what's cool. Ndebele Neck Rings aren't just something you'll see inside the pages of National Geographic, within the context of the film they're a fashion accessory that's part of the Dora Milaje’s uniform. Basotho Blankets look great in general, but in the movie they're warrior gear that can generate a forcefield. These bits of tradition can be infused with a helping of sci-fi, these looks can be cool and not just as seen on the Discovery Channel.
Narratives are important; they inform how we see the world and help us process things. For centuries now, the narrative surrounding Africa has been one of a poor and primitive continent, one on the receiving end of a “white man’s burden” whether through colonial subjugation or questioning if they know it's Christmas. It's a woefully outdated, untrue narrative (and a harmful one that I feel dirty just typing out), but it's hard to undo a story so firmly ingrained in the popular consciousness.
Black Panther doesn't just show black characters as awesome heroes, it presents a sci-fi image of an Africa untouched by colonialism that's flourishing, replete with its tribal trappings. Zulu headdresses and Mursi Lip Plates aren't seen as primitive or savage, they're regal, majestic, and epic.
I've written about Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk before, where she stresses the importance of different narratives, about how stories in fiction can be validating. When the only stories we get about Africa (be they through fiction, news, or leaked presidential minutes) focus on it as a war-torn and underdeveloped continent, we start to form certain assumptions about the people who live there and their culture. Black Panther tells us, no matter how subliminally, that these people are as sophisticated as folks anywhere else, that their traditional clothes are rich beyond serving as something for you to gawk at.
Look, one story alone can't wholly change a centuries-old narrative. But the representation in Black Panther is certainly a step in the right direction. I want to see more colorful science fiction (and stories in general), ones that don't just pay lip service to non-western cultures but dig into them for both inspiration and representation. I hope there's more. And I can't wait to see what's next.