‘Black Panther’ breaks the mold

Sabrina Sayed | Contributing Writer

Hollywood executives have said no one would want to watch a film with a predominantly black cast. They said that actors and directors of color are “less bankable than their white male counterparts.” The fact is, “Black Panther” is a big, fat middle finger in the face of all of Hollywood. With an estimated $235 million in sales over the course of four days, director Ryan Coogler’s film ranks as “the biggest February opening weekend ever, the biggest non-sequel debut ever and the top-grossing film by a black director.” This spectacular, one-of-a-kind Marvel film exceeds all expectations in almost every aspect.

First, I must address the far too common myth that “Black Panther” is only for black people. “Black Panther” is not a “black” film. If that was true, almost every film would be a “white” film and that’s just not the case. “Black Panther” is for all. Like any other superhero movie, “Black Panther” features elements of tragedy, humor, action, fantasy and, of course, a strong backstory; however, “Black Panther” is an exceptional Marvel film because every character, costume, song, scene and witty remark was crafted with specific intent.

Black-Panther-TChalla-posterAaron Brezel | Student Life

The film is set in the fictional, futuristic African country of Wakanda (although many, including myself, may insist that Wakanda is real), where the king has been murdered and it is time for prince T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, to take his rightful place as king and become the next “Black Panther.”

Although the film is centered around a male lead, the new king is surrounded and supported by a literal army of women. These women are beautifully portrayed in the sense that they are multifaceted. They are sexy and intelligent. They are clever and fierce. They are princesses and engineers. In the words of Boseman, “Wakanda is nothing without its women.”

“Black women were warriors and scientists. They were people the men looked to for advice for courage, for strength,” freshman Sophia Kamanzi said.

It is also important to note that the fight scenes don’t sexualize the female warriors as one would expect. Instead, the women kick a– without caring about the way they look. In one scene, general Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, tosses her wig straight into her enemy’s face, rocking a fierce bald look, and pierces her enemy with a spear. Very rarely do we see a black woman on screen being portrayed as someone men confide in or consult for advice.

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter was determined to portray the women warriors as “attractive and intimidating,” rather than your usual bada–, bikini-wearing sex ingenues. Embracing African history, artistry and culture, Carter crafted traditional attire inspired by the Maasai, a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, to create the looks for the Wakandan warriors’ uniforms. Carter celebrates her costumes that she describes as “feminine, masculine, beautiful and strong—and without showing an inch of skin.”

Everything Carter created was inspired by designs found in flea markets and antique shops run by African entrepreneurs from Atlanta to Pasadena, Calif. to Ghana. Queen Ramonda’s crown is a headdress traditionally worn by traditional Zulu (an ethnic group of South Africa) married women. W’Kabi, played by Daniel Kaluuya, wears blankets wrapped around his body that double as a shield, based on traditional Lesotho (a country in Southern Africa) blankets. Every single piece of jewelry and every stitch, down to the last detail, was specifically intended to represent the many diverse aspects of African cultures and traditions.

Representation was crucial to the movie’s success. “Black Panther” has created a feeling of empowerment among people of color, especially among students here at Wash. U. Sophomore Cheryl Mensah praised the film for its ability to provide a glimpse into how Africans see Africa, rather than the stereotypical negative perceptions too often portrayed to us by the media, showing the unforgettable images of emaciated and impoverished African-orphan children. As a black woman with Ghanaian roots, Mensah admires the film’s portrayal of dark-skinned women as “beautiful, lovable and intelligent.” Many African students at Wash. U. were able to recognize themselves and parts of their culture in the film.

“It made me proud of my culture and proud to be from a place that, although may be struggling in some places, everyone is banded together as a community embracing their rich culture,” junior Keona Kalu said.

Kalu touches upon the importance of stepping back and seeing the big picture, rather than focusing on this one small aspect of Africa. Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries in which each has its own unique culture. Within each country the diversity is extremely dynamic as well, making it preposterous to lump the entire continent together under one characteristic of “Africa.” “Black Panther” does an incredible job displaying the prominent tribal diversity that exists within many African countries. The film sets a precedent for future Hollywood films to respect and embrace the diversity that prevails throughout African countries.

“Of course, the characters are fictional, but the character traits they represent are all too real in the black community. Just know that these traits—the intelligence, the strength, the power, the will—these are things that exist in the black community and in black people that you see every day on the street,” freshman Jelani Deajon-Jackson said.

Deajon-Jackson urges “Black Panther” viewers to absorb the qualities that are so dynamically portrayed by the characters so that they may recognize these same qualities that live in the black community. He encourages us to allow the film to sway us to see black and African people as strong and intelligent, just as we have allowed past films to sway us to see black and Africans as dangerous and uncivilized.

For the first time in my life, I watched dark-skinned, black men and women be portrayed in film the same way I’ve watched white men and women be portrayed in film my entire life: witty, intelligent, powerful, strong, beautiful and colorful, just to name a few. My experience watching “Black Panther” was a true turning point in my life.

Throughout my journey as the first-year representative of the African Students Association at Wash. U., I have had the honor and privilege to learn about the variety of unique and beautiful cultures that exist throughout the African diaspora, especially from people I am proud to now call friends. A majority of my African friends are, indeed, black. They come from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Togo and many more countries all over Africa. My connection to the “Black Panther” film was rooted in how I experienced it, alongside my black African friends. I was lucky enough to witness their reactions and how enlivened they were by the film.

When the film ended, I heard many people who were previously worried about their psychology exam the next day say, “You know what? We’re gonna be fine! We got this!” This unprecedented confidence filled the entire movie theater as everyone repeatedly signaled their now more pronounced interconnections with one another by crossing their arms and saying “Wakanda forever!” It was a beautiful scene to witness.

For this reason, “Black Panther” fills me with such intense emotion each time I think about it. I will never forget how confident and empowered the film made my black African friends feel. Seeing them so hopeful and excited inspired the same hope and excitement in me.

“I finally feel like we’re going to be OK,” sophomore Mashoud Kaba, who is Ethiopian, said.

I asked Kamanzi how it felt to have black men and women represented as people of strength, intelligence, dignity and power. Kamanzi looked down and smiled to herself before she responded, “It felt good.” Her smile spoke volumes.