Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever were global hits that played out in an imaginary African kingdom and feature a universe of black creative talent. What’s not to love about the franchise? Quite a lot, reckons cultural and literary studies scholar Jeanne-Marie Viljoen. We asked her to explain.
What are Black Panther’s limitations when it comes to diversity?
Even though the Black Panther films didn’t represent Africans on their own complex terms, they’re still a major cultural phenomenon. They bring issues of racial representation into the spotlight for Hollywood’s still largely white audiences. They do so through the use of Black talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
In the first film, the black superhero, T’Challa, is crowned king of Wakanda, a mythical African kingdom with advanced technological prowess. Drama ensues when he is challenged by Killmonger, who plans to use the kingdom’s power to begin a global revolution. In the sequel, the leaders of Wakanda fight to protect their nation and its valuable resources in the wake of King T’Challa’s death as his sister Shuri becomes the new Black Panther.
The first film was a phenomenal box office success, with over half of its sales coming from the US market. The sequel, although not quite as successful, was most successful in global markets. It’s my view that Hollywood’s investment in these films is driven by a narrow western definition of spectacle. US audiences marvel at the visual spectacle that entertains and sells. This has the effect of distancing them from the actual content of what they are viewing (Africa and diversity).
It is not so much because of the films themselves, but because of how they have been received by Hollywood audiences who understand spectacle in a very particular way. So films like Black Panther have in some ways been counterproductive. They’ve made Hollywood audiences believe that enough has been done about diversity. The 2019 Hollywood Diversity report singles out Black Panther as a good example of how the power of diverse images has convinced a significant number of American film spectators (42%) that enough has been done about diversity in Hollywood. So it’s making matters worse, instead of helping to increase diversity and ultimately decolonise the US mainstream imagination.
This suggests that Hollywood spectators are lulled by such films and their spectacle. They don’t feel there’s further reason to find out any more about Africa and African film-making or audiences. This means Hollywood audiences are not invested in a more nuanced understanding of the kind of spectacle we see from Nollywood audiences in Nigeria, for example. This not only limits the understanding of diversity but also limits the way that films about such topics are made.
What can Hollywood learn from how the films have been received in Africa?
While the costumes of Black Panther draw from various authentic African cultures, this is just an appropriation of some of the most popular visual aspects of some African cultures (such as lip plates and neck rings). In the sequel, critics point out that the average (presumably American) viewer won’t know that the language being spoken in the film is isiXhosa, a South African language, or that some of the garments are made with Ghanaian Kente cloth and designs. Since Africa is a continent of over 50 countries that are diverse culturally and geographically, this “borrowing” could suggest that their cultural markers are shared and interchangeable. Real empowerment only comes about with more “direct engagement with African political and social issues” and less emphasis on profit.
Yet, despite these inaccurate and inauthentic displays of Africa, in Nigeria, Wakanda Forever performed better than it did in the Hollywood domestic market, relatively speaking. It became the biggest grossing film ever at the Nigerian box office, the first film to earn one billion naira. This is because Nollywood audiences have a more nuanced reading of spectacle and how politics and entertainment come together than Hollywood audiences do.
Nollywood has developed its own conventions around cinematic spectacle which Hollywood largely neglects. According to these conventions the audience engages with socio-cultural and socio-economic issues in a way that exceeds merely visual displays. So, a Nollywood blockbuster includes both visual spectacle and a reflection of the lived conditions and social issues that Nigerian people face. Some academics argue that for African audiences, Afro-superheroes are not just visual spectacles but are also embedded in political and social issues. They offer ways of understanding the world today. This explains why, in African criticism, Wakanda has become a potential resource for imaginative transformation, rather than merely escapism.
This may explain why, despite its unrealistic portrayal of Africans, in Nigeria the film has been popular. It has been interpreted through the sophisticated lens of Nollywood spectacle. Wakanda Forever tackles political issues, even though it does so in a limited way. For Hollywood audiences the spectacle stops deeper engagement with politics. In Nollywood this engagement with politics is something people are comfortable with and want to make more of. They use this to build knowledge about African futurism and engage in political knowledge building.
Why should Hollywood look to Africa for a better future?
Hollywood should look to Africa in order to expand and decolonise what Hollywood envisions cinema can do in relation to building knowledge about diversity and film-making. In focusing mainly on a Hollywood audience and largely ignoring African audiences, Hollywood not only makes its audience believe that the limited headway that this film makes with inclusion and diversity is enough. It also fails to exploit African audiences both for their appetite for films but also for what can be learnt about inclusion and film-making from their more complex understanding of diversity politics and cinematic spectacle.
This limits the kinds of social problems Hollywood audiences can solve and also the films that Hollywood can make. This is unfortunate when one considers Africa’s global authority in the arts and when one observes that Africa boasts several robust cinema industries of its own. If African audiences were taken into account by Hollywood then Hollywood could do more for diversity and inclusion instead of repeating the same old, tired spectacle we are used to seeing in Hollywood superhero films.
Jeanne-Marie Viljoen, Lecturer, Creative Unit, UniSA, University of South Australia