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Perfidy and possibility, in Ryan Coogler’s ”Black Panther”

By J.K. Obatala
In the closing moments of “Black Panther,” when the primary conflict is being resolved, a contingent of defeated male warriors fall on their knees, before a female general.

black panther

Everything that transpired previously—the fight scenes, the car chase, the cultural camouflage, the dialogue—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 “untying of knots” 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 Panther’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 “black” production, as such—an important point to keep in mind.

Two white writers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, conceived “Black Panther” as a comic-book superhero, in 1966.

But Christopher Priest—one of two African Americans who also wrote the character, at various times—told Comic-Book.Com, that the original superhero was a physicist, not a king.

In addition, principle characters, such as “Nakia” (the hero’s lover), “Okoye” (the general) and the “Dora Milaje” (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 “Kingdom of Wakanda,” has its “real historical roots in nuclear-age Congo”.

It was, he contends, Lee’s and Kirby’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, Coogler’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.

Black panther

“Race” and “Culture,” for instance, were the reasons Ezu Ojukwu, director of the award-winning historical drama, “’76,” gave for going to see Black Panther.

“I’m not a fan of superhero movies,” he admitted. “But 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 pigmentation”.

Panther’s focus on African culture has been inducing cult-like behavior. The Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, a Ghanaian, noted that “Black audiences in the United States [plan] special outfits and parties and [raise] funds to take children to see the film”.

Speaking from Los Angeles, Ayuko Babu, chief executive officer of the Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF), confirmed Attiah’s observation. PAFF held a Special Screening on St. Valentine’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, “All the clothiers sold out their stock, because people came in by the hundreds, to buy costumes to wear, when they go to see ‘The Black panther’!”

In his interview with Attiah, Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo reported a similar phenomenon in his country. “I have friends,” he said, “who are going in full Masai wear to the theaters! They feel represented”.

There were no “Masai” to be seen, at Silverbird’s chic Entertainment Centre, in Abuja, where I went to watch the movie. But I did spot Wale Delegend—a graphics designer (not a tribesman!)—dancing happily out of “hall 03,” at the end of the screening.

“It was Awesome,” he emitted, joyfully. “It was awesome”. Word-of-mouth adverts, from people like Delegend, is apparently what attracted 13-year-old Afalobi Temiloluwe, who said she had “Heard good things about the movie…and wanted to come”.

Delegend’s exuberance, combined with Temiloluwe’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 filmmaking—to put “Black Panther” 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 behavior—conveying his prescription creatively, as “entertainment”. But what we call “entertainment,” is merely the energy of attraction—inducement—for viewers to watch and be influenced.

Photographer and videographer, Kerri Kleinschmidt, recently warned, on Linked-In, that “visual and auditory stimulus can be transmitted from the movie screen to every person in the audience in some way or form”.

An illuminating passage, in the prologue to Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam’s book, “Movies and Money,” describes the darkened cinema house as “that magic atmosphere where people are at their most vulnerable to impressions and to ideas”.

As with all other cultural activity, a film scenario is crafted to transmit what evolutionary psychologists call “fitness relevant” information—mainly to facilitates sex- and war-related activity.

Film, therefore, is a biological asset. It is also racial—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 executive—a white, middle-aged male, whose demeanor projected wealth and power—apprised me, “confidentially,” that “certain things,” had to be in a Black movie, for investors to release money.

When the screen lit up at Silverbird, the V.P.’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 film’s more subversive tropes. First, the fictional kingdom of “Wakanda”—set in East Africa—is at war with itself, instead of an external aggressor.

We are told that “Wakanda” is a powerful nation, whose advanced technology is based on “vibranium”–a mysterious metal that fell to Earth as a meteorite.

The closest thing the Kingdom has to an external foe, is “Ulysses Klaue,” an avaricious arms dealer (Andy Serkis), who steals some of the vibranium. Yet it is “Killmonger,” the royal heir’s arch rival, who dispatches Klaue—not Wakanda’s crack female intelligence unit.

The villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan ), is Panther’s second racially debilitating trope. Known as “N’Jadaka” to Wakandans, from whom he partially descends, Killmonger grew up in Oakland, California, as an African American.

N’Jadaka precipitates a crisis, when he returns to challenge T’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, T’Challa reaches out to young blacks, in Oakland. Coogler may have inserted this sequence, in an attempt at damage control, to offset the “Killmonger” character’s “divide-and-rule” symbolism.

Yet the symbolism of “Killmonger” is innocuous, compared with the seditious psychology of the “Dora Milaje”. This is Wakanda’s all-women assault and intelligence unit, which also serves as the King’s bodyguard.

I strongly suspect, that the Dora Milaje is the real reason MCU made Black Panther: That “female fighters” 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 1600’s, British settlers encouraged disaffection among native women. This practice remains fundamental, to American foreign and domestic policy.

It finds political expression in Andromeda Alliances—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 “Women Affairs” ministries in Africa.

The “strong African woman” and black female/white male interaction, are prominent sub-themes in Black Panther. Viewers will note, that “Nakia” (Lupita Nyong’o ) saved the life of CIA agent “Everett K. Ross” (Martin Freeman), without any logical reason for doing so.

They will note too, the interplay between Ross and “Shuri” (Letitia Wright)—who developed the vibranium technology she uses to treat him. With Shuri controlling the tech and “Okoye” the commandos, women run the show in Wakanda!

Wakanda’s clitoral hit squad—the “Dora Milaje”—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, Coogler’s Wakanda does not—as some commentators claim—reflect “pre-colonial African reality,” when women “shared power” 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, you’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 host’s wife!

Evolutionary psychology, explains each of these customs. But the point I’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, Dahomey’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 aesthetic—“barbaric splendor,” in 19th century parlance—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, it’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 Okoye—then describes Gurira’s “wig-throwing” scene as “the most gay-friendly Marvel [Cinematic Universe] moment to date”!

Insinuating, Debruge (who is white) designates the footage, in which Okoye towers over humiliated black men, as “the film’s single most iconic shot”. 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 Panther’s plot, should watch “The Devil And Max Devlin”—a 1981 Disney production, starring black comedian, Bill Cosby.

In its denouement too, we see an “iconic” long shot: Of Cosby, with horns and tail, wielding a trident and glowing red. As he bellows “Burn! … Burn! … Burn!” 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 Hollywood’s perfidy. “Cinema,” Puttnam writes, “allows us to sit…watching people something like five times real size on the screen, and it enables us to borrow, as it were, their identities”.

Neither blacks in Africa, nor those in the U.S.A., seem to appreciate the mental havoc “self-magnification” is capable of wreaking: Through implanting into viewers’ 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 Cobb’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 “race” (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 1960’s—not psychology or genetics—that informs these writings.

Psychology aside, Black Panther’s cultural content and unprecedented crowd appeal could very well morph into a racial asset—a global matrix, in which a cooperative ethic that transcends national borders and continental divides, can crystallize.

Steve Gukas, director of “93 Days,” a seminal study of Nigeria’s conquest of Ebola, believes Black Panther’s rich visual content, cross-cultural cast and afro-futuristic theme is helping to engender a common identity.

“The film appeals to…many people, on…many levels,” he enthused, in a telephone interview. “It has… created a narrative that so many people of African descent find compelling…They can see a bit of themselves in the movie; and this accounts for its world popularity”.

“For me,” Attiah exulted to Madowo, corroborating Gukas, “It was like, ‘Try to find your culture somewhere!’ It was…[an] African history class. I could hear the Nigerian accent. As a Ghanaian, I was like, ‘There’s kente cloth,’ or, ‘Look, Shuri is wearing aggrey beads!’”

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 “Combination of Africans from all over the world”.

Coogler’s cross-cultural ethic is captivatingly depicted, during the denouement, when T’Challa has finally won “Nakia” 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 “’76,” predicts that “there’s going to be a lot of cross-cultural interaction” as a result of Black Panther’s global impact.

In fact, he asserts, “Panther’s” influence is already traveling beyond film: “I mean, you have kids going to their parents and asking them, ‘Why can’t I be black’. I saw a video, the other day…on a mixed-race kid—who was unhappy that he was not a hundred percent black!”

Nigerian director Willis Ikedum, whose Mummy Dearest is also running at Silverbird, thinks the fallout from Panther is likely to be extensive. “I learned so much from watching the movie,” he allowed, speaking from Port Harcourt. “I’ve already started sharing insight with my actors.

Princewill sees “lots of opportunities,” in the Black Panther experience, beyond acting and production. “One obvious area,” he observes, “is merchandising and promotion. It’s a great film. But much of its impact is due to marketing. We should definitely look carefully at that”.

Ironically, there may not be “lots of opportunities” left for Ryan Coogler at Marvel Cinematic Universe—not creative opportunities, anyway. With this film, he may have ‘exhausted all creative possibilities,’ 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 Coogler—as part of “Avengers: Infinity War”.

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 blacks—unless blacks are paying the cost.

In Panther, the outcome of this classic zero-sum game is evinced, in lesbian symbolism (“Dora Milaje”) and the callously divisive “you can’t come home again” message, which the “Killmonger” character sends to African Americans.

I’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, “I have a lot of pain inside me. We were taught that we lost the things that made us African…[But] there’s no way they could wipe out what we were for thousands of years. We’re African.”

Cobb reports further, that the director made it clear to MCU “up front,” that his version of Black Panther would “remain true to those political elements”. Coogler’s identity and expressed ideals, thus rule out “Killmonger”—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 Marvel’s biologically alien universe—where compromises are imposed, which betray the trust of naïve 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,” epitomizes both the vulnerability of the African psyche, and the opportunity for a black, biology-conscious filmmaker, to reshape it.

“You’re rushing in to see ‘Panther’,” I offered, as he approached.

“Yes. I don’t want to miss the opening,” he urged, anxiously.

“What are your expectations?”

Already moving away, the youth stopped—then turned, to face me. Clear, intelligent eyes glared quizzically, through the gloam of “hall-03”.

“Nothing,” he allowed, striding off again, “I’ll just let it blow my mind!”

I watched the young male disappear into the darkened entrance—and imagined him on his knees, before “General Okoye” and the “Dora Milaje”.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.