The fictional country of Wakanda is, at least according to the comic book history, located somewhere in real life Turkana, the largest and also poorest of Kenya’s 47 counties. I happened to be in Turkana the day Black Panther was officially released in Kenya at a relatively low-key event at the cinema in Kisumu, hometown of the actress Lupita Nyong’o who stars in the movie.
Forty years ago, when the Marvel comics introduced the character of Black Panther, Lodwar, the county capital of Turkana, would have been a sleepy backwater in Kenya’s vast northern terrain, a stopping point on the way to Juba or Khartoum in Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo fantasy, and not a place to visit per se. The town’s main claim to fame would have been that Jomo Kenyatta, who would later become the first president of Kenya, was detained there by the colonial administration during the struggle for independence.
It’s a small detail in the grand tapestry woven together in both the comic books and the film. But it’s the kind of detail that jumps out at you when a film is set up to be more than just two hours of entertainment. Between the marketing extravaganza and the subsequent conversations, Black Panther (2018) has been set up as a global cultural moment rather than another piece of a billion-dollar franchise. The highest grossing film helmed by a black director, it hopefully marks a turning point for the opportunities available for black filmmakers in Hollywood. And particularly for black audiences, the film is supposed to mark our entry into the hitherto elusive superhero genre. This is the moment capitalist film studios realise the power of the black consumer and the potential profitability of representation.
This film has been read a hundred different ways: everyone comes to the table to consume the behemoth but leaves having just tasted a morsel – the part of the film that resonated most with them, the metaphor that struck home, or the historical detail that tied it all to something real.
Here is reading one hundred and one.
The news of a fictional country resisting colonialism has spread faster and further than the real news of ongoing political turmoil in the only real country in Africa that managed to do so.
It’s likely that no one in Turkana is going to see Black Panther – at least not until it is released on DVD or a bootleg version finds its way there. There are no cinemas there, and there may never be. While the secretive vastness of the dry countryside may have inspired the mystery of the fictional country of Wakanda, the truth is the hot, harsh and dry terrain of the region has left it, until recently, forgotten by the central administration in Nairobi. In fact, when people from Nairobi visit the Turkana often ask “how is Kenya?” because of the imagined geography of the country that separates the dry north from the southern food basket.
So while I had to wait two weeks to finally buy a ticket to see Black Panther in Nairobi (at 11am on a Thursday, no less) I would venture to say that very few of the thousands of people who saw the movie in Nairobi will ever go to Turkana because the glamorous packaging of Wakanda is far more accessible to their imagination than the real-life frontier county.
To me, this speaks to a broader issue with the way in which this film is being handled in public discourse. The idea of Wakanda as a stand-in for the realAfrica– the creeping tendency to celebrate the capitalist triumph of Wakanda as some kind of victory for all of Africa – is unnerving. When I see Kenyan kids borrowing tropes like “at last we can see ourselves in film” as if Kenyans haven’t been making films for over 30 years, it breaks my heart.
Having worked behind the scenes on a handful of Kenyan films, it is also frustrating. It is easier to package and consume a fictional Africa than find $1,000 to support a film that tells a story about the real place. While Nollywood, FESPACO and myriad smaller film institutions struggle to get funding to support African films, in this film the idea of Africa has been bleached of its complexity, corporatised, marketed and even sold back to Africa in a return to purity parable featuring an improbably sexy cast.
Consider that the news of a fictional country resisting colonialism has spread faster and further than the real news of ongoing political turmoil in the only real country in Africa that managed to do so. Why hasn’t the news of the current political and social upheaval in Ethiopia gained as much traction as the tension between T’Challa and Eric Killmonger? Why is it easier to develop a Black Panther curriculum for young people in the United States than to do the same with Ethiopia, a real place with real people that did successfully resist colonialism but is now dealing with the fall out of indigenous imperialism?
To me, the answer is that, regardless of all appeals to a unitary black identity, Black Panther is still a Western film, shot with a Western gaze and primarily for a Western audience. It promotes Western ideas of militarisation and conquest and even imperialism in its celebration of a seemingly infallible king. Now, it may be an African American gaze that celebrates dark skin and curly hair, but it is still primarily a Western gaze. Consider that in one pivotal moment within the climax the antagonist lists cities that will be central to achieving his plan – and none of them are in Africa. Here, Africa is a fascinating backdrop that adds depth and dimension, but it ultimately remains just that – a jumping -off point for the West to both look inward and project itself around the world.
Another hint is in the comparative treatment of slavery and colonisation. While the slave trade is the defining historical moment for black identity in the West, we here in Africa are still grappling with the fallout of colonialism. The two are related, but not interchangeable. It’s not an Oppression Olympics – none is inherently better or worse than the other – but they are qualitatively different social and political experiences. A militarised Africa in the mould of a Western nation is not the ultimate fantasy of the hitherto colonised, and we know because right now our governments are pursuing that fantasy at the expense of our schools, hospitals and wellbeing.
Another clue is in the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the conceit of their morally ambiguous interaction. While Western audiences seem to struggle with the antagonist’s villainy by the end of the film, I would venture that many of us in African countries see things a little differently. We know the next chapter of this book. Erik Killmonger is Mobutu Sese Seko, Joseph Kabila and his father before him; Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Emperor he deposed; Bokassa in CAR and Idris Deby in Chad. Any ruler to whom bloodshed is a mere technicality on the road to power – especially one who owes his existence to the CIA or another foreign power – isn’t worth agonising over regardless of his underlying ideology because eventually he (and almost always a he) comes for you.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that because of the nature of comic book franchises and the vast interconnections in the comic book universe, the filmmakers are bound to a specific story. And it is equally important to note that within this story, director Ryan Coogler has done a tremendous job. The casting is exquisite, and the female characters in this film are especially triumphant – strong, self-possessed and confident even in their most unnerving emotional moments. The costumes deserve every award, and the fight sequences are a celebration of modern CGI. The script and imagery have enabled many complex conversations about contemporary society and politics in the mainstream, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
Seen in its proper place – as part of a broader capitalist venture by a large studio – this really is a fantastic film.
But we must see the film in its proper place. That place isn’t Africa, and that’s okay. It wouldn’t be fair to expect one film to take on the burden of representation for a whole continent when it is already fighting for the visibility and representation of over 40 million African Americans in an industry that refuses to see them as more than a token. This is a triumph of African American filmmaking and should be celebrated as such without leaning on Africa as a marketing crutch. In the spirit of an African proverb I am absolutely just making up, a thing doesn’t need to be everything to every person in order to have value.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.