Updated: Sep 10, 2020
- Aritra Maitra
In a year already filled with one bad news after the other, Chadwick Bosman's death hit a lot of us a little too close to the chest. Even without his iconic role as the Black Panther, Bosman was an accomplished actor, a philanthropist and a social worker. We saw how many lives were touched by his work when social media started filling up with messages of grief and loss. It was clear that for people around the world, especially black people, he was a lot more than just an actor. This got me thinking, what was so special about Black Panther that was so influential? He definitely isn't the only black superhero on screen. There is falcon played by Anthony Mackie and War Machine played by Don Cheadle in this very MCU. There was also Cyborg from DCEU, Storm from X-Men, The Human Torch from the 2015 reboot of the Fantastic four, Miles Morales from Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, not to mention the 2 Blade movies and Luke Cage. And this is not even considering the unending supply of black superheroes in the comic books. So what made Black Panther so different? But then it struck me that despite there being other black superheroes on screen, they suffered from the same identity crisis an average black American did. I started piecing together the stories of what black people in America experience everyday. It is no secret how alienated black people are made to feel in America. We have left the dark ages of slavery behind, but even today when a person of color moves into a mostly white neighborhood, people lock their doors a little tighter. And this is not just limited to America. Until very recently South African government considered racism their official policy. The walls in England are often filled with racist and xenophobic graffitis. These black people were taken from their home, traded by slavers and treated like animals. Generations after generations lived and died in captivity. But even after hundreds of years and universal condemnation of such barbaric practices, they remain almost as rootless as they used to be. I remember South African comedian Trevor Noah recalling in his Netflix special how in America a black woman kept on insisting him to tell her stories of Africa, her motherland. Although she had probably never been to Africa herself, she felt a strong connection to that place. A connection strong enough for her to call it her motherland. Years later during an interview with the same Trevor Noah Chadwick Bosman explained how as a child he used to sit in front of a map of Africa and tried to figure out where he came from. An entire continent, but he didn't know where his home was. A descendant of slaves, failing to fit in with a people that got rich off his ancestors.
We spend so much time talking about how we are all equal, we forget to talk about how we're all different. And this difference is beautiful. This is where Black Panther sets itself apart from other superhero movies. When we speak of Africa, we think of a poor place with poor sanitation, poor people and an excessive amount of bloodshed. We don't think of a place like Wakanda. Wakanda is not only the most advanced country on the planet, it is deeply, deeply African. Their mind boggling technologies have in no way steered them away from their traditional huts, their traditional clothing or traditional practices. Instead it has made its way into those. The technology has shaped their culture just as much as their culture has shaped their technology. The European narrative of history has made us believe that their grey cities are symbols of development while the green villages in Africa are not. The idea behind this carefully designed portrayal of Wakanda was to take the concept of advancement and development away from the shadow of westernization. Africa is the birthplace of humanity, it is the cradle of ancient civilizations like Egypt and Ethiopia. This was something the makers of Black Panther had in mind from the beginning. They planned to build Wakanda as a mother nation of them all. While king T'Chala aka Black Panther has a Nelson Mandela like Xhosa accent, Nakia played by Lupita Nyong'o had a Kenyan accent. M'baku played by Winston Duke on the other hand had an accent that was inspired by Nigerian. Wakanda is supposed to be the womb of everything that is African. So that the kids staring at a map of Africa searching for their home can find one right there. Maybe that's why the movie Black Panther begins with this exchange between Eric Killmonger and his father N'Jobu about Wakanda -
N'Jobu: Yes my son.
Eric: Tell me a story.
N'Jobu: Which one?
Eric: The story of home.
Initially Marvel was hesitant about keeping the African accent in the movie. They were afraid people would not like to listen to that accent for an entire movie. But Bosman said that it would be a deal breaker. Because the essence of Black Panther and of Wakanda was in its deep-rooted African-ness. A small country, hidden from the world, rich with mineral resources, untouched by colonialism, reaching heights of technology one can only dream of, paints a picture what Africa could have been. When in Infinity War Captain America chose Wakanda as his last stand against Thanos' army, it wasn't only because it was the only place where they could get the mind stone off of Vision's forehead but also because the Wakandan army lead by King T'Chala was the only army on the planet that had any chance against the biggest threat the universe had ever faced. It was very important for many to see someone so in touch with their African side go toe to toe with the Avengers, lead the fight against the mad Titan Thanos, because it gave them hope. It gave them a sense of belongingness. It assured them that they too can be 'super' without forfeiting who they are. Much like the slogan from the movie X-Men: First Class, "Mutant and proud", Black Panther had an unspoken slogan be repeated throughout the movie: "African and proud".
Maybe that's why it was so important that the movie doesn't have a traditional hero and a villain. Eric Killmonger, despite being the antagonist, was never the villain. He was a killer born out of his own sufferings own rootless-ness. His methods were violent, but his motivation, his end goal changed T'Chala's worldview forever. So it hurt to see him defeated at the end. Saying to T'Chala, “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” He was ruthless, but real. At the end of the day, that's what it was all about. Reclaiming the narrative. Killmonger was the other side of the same coin all along.
Words don't do justice when describing the importance of Black Panther as a cultural landmark. I could go on and on about how it transcended the tag of a 'superhero movie' and went on to become so much more. To borrow Cap's words, "I can do this all day." Black Panther was a warrior, a leader and a king. He defied the odds and redefined boundaries. And Chadwick breathed life into him. It didn't matter if Black Panther was real or not because he gave people hope. Not just to black people, but to everyone who felt sidelined by white glory all these years. Oppressed people around the world have more in common than can ever be separated by any race, caste or creed. After his father's death, T'Chala said that in his culture, death is not the end. It's more of a stepping off point. Glory to Bast, I hope the same is true for Chadwick. Rest in power King Chadwick Bosman. May you be as gracious in death as you have been in life. You have inspired generations, been a force for social change and for millions of comic book fans like me, you have left behind countless unforgettable memories. But those who touch so many lives never truly die. And neither have you. So until next time... Wakanda Forever!