Usually, I shy away from putting a newly released film-trailer on some gilded pedestal. I realise that these are dark times for the written word (hence support us on Patreon, hint hint!) But at the risk of sounding condescending there is something incredibly click-bait-ish about devoting an entire write-up to something that by its very nature tells you next to nothing.
Still, when Marvel released the teaser trailer for The Black Panther (surely at the very opportune moment when competing DC’s Wonder Woman is still playing in theaters) I knew that a mere listing it atop my five favourite things for the week wouldn’t suffice.
This, we need to talk about.
The recent adaptation of Marvel’s original black superhero will tell the story of king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) sworn protector of the technologically advanced and completely isolated nation of Wakanda.
The hype surrounding any mainstream venture that has minorities at its centre is intentional. After the backlash that followed Hollywood racism, and the wider arguments surrounding racism in America as a whole, the studio system finally realized the consumer power of audiences of colour. Enter the age of blaring billboards announcing that either Marvel or DC is daring to have a minority character as the face of their cinematic universe.
The main distinction is that The Black Panther while dealing with race, is not about the African American experience. Rather, it is set in a fictional African nation which was never colonized. The potential in that little detail is what makes this film something to jump up and down about.
Now, before I start stacking up all that I already love about the forthcoming feature, let me just acknowledge that The Black Panther, both the film and canon itself, is far from perfect.
No fan, no matter how ardent, can ignore that in its earliest inception the titular character pandered to all the exoticized stereotypes that have plagued African culture as a whole.
When introduced in the 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, King T’Chala is referred to as a “refugee from a Tarzan movie” by a lead character. Yes, cringe.
We are then presented with the fearsome Panther and the technological advancements of his people. Yet the early portrayal of Wakanda also pandered to many of the ‘uncivilized’ tropes that most Africans continue to be burdened by.
Some have even argued that while the character’s creators (either Stan Lee or Jack Kerby, or both depending on which side of the fandom you call home) wanted to have a black character in their comics, yet making him African as opposed to African American might also have been intentionally done so as to keep the homegrown political objections at bay. In the 1960s, Civil Rights had gained traction and hence was being met with even more violent obstacles.
That the intelligent, and fierce black hero was not American could have been a deliberate attempt to keep him away from the very real, and very American polarization.
But even more so, the widely lauded and viral trailer of the film itself has caused some debates. Native Africans have called out minutiae which gives uninformed audiences the image of African without really respecting any one of the many diverse cultures and localities that the continent houses.
I do unfortunately belong to said uninformed audience, and so didn’t realise that the images in the trailer, while visually stunning were also offensive to African norms. Yet as a Pakistani who looses a fair bit of sleep when articles from my own culture are picked up and put down by North American businesses, I can empathize with this outrage.
It isn’t okay, and really when it is called out we need to acknowledge the short-sightedness of blanketing all of Africa under one culture. That too is part of the Eurocentric vision of the world; it too needs to be taken to task.
But despite these problems, I have hope for the film. Because at a time when racism within the USA is being questioned and when audiences are flexing their opinionated muscles when it comes to white-washed cinema (when a Scarlett Johansen staring Ghost in The Shell can be a major bomb because fans were not amused) we have to talk about colonialism and how, to put it mildly, its was not okay.
I grew up in Pakistan, went through the Pakistan studies thing, learned about the history and geography of my home and throughout this education colonialism was relegated to a strategic battle between this monarch and that. The degradation of people and culture, the censoring of native dissent, the fact that experiences of colonial rule were accompanied by a ‘divide and rule’ approach that worsened existing tensions and travelled into post-independence societies, all of this was artfully omitted.
It is anyone’s guess as to what the world would have looked like had colonialism not been a thing, and donning a pair of rose-tinted glasses and claiming that everything that is wrong with Pakistan stems from our colonial past isn’t fair, or helpful. But then again, neither is the notion that all the advancements in the world, technological, social, economic, were introduced by European colonizers.
The image of a powerful African nation, in a film directed by and starring mostly black actors, although it does star prolific white actors Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis (yes, Bilbo Baggins and Gollum are starring in a Marvel movie. Let thy nerd minds explode) is a political statement by its very nature. It stands up to notions of racial superiority and also takes on the Eurocentric position of pop-culture.
As most of the post-colonial world still struggles to deal with collective experiences, this sure to be hit has the potential to add another shade into the debate. And colour is always good.