November 29th is officially recognised as ‘Chadwick Boseman Day’. In honour of what would’ve been the movie stars 44th birthday, we would like to recognise and celebrate his indelible legacy – focusing specifically on his role in decolonizing the typical ‘Superhero’ look and narrative by playing T’Challa in the blockbuster movie “Black Panther”. We will also examine how the movie sparked conversations that challenged the superhero gender norms.
The movie “Black Panther” did a wonderful job of exploring relevant and complex issues such as Black identity, history, colonialism, culture, and technology. Wakanda is a vision of what Africa could or at least would’ve been had it not been ravaged by imperialism and exploitation – a powerful image of what we could’ve achieved had we not been colonized and enslaved by Europeans, but instead left to flourish and govern our lands (Africa).
The role of King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is pivotal in shaping young Black children’s image of themselves. We cannot stress enough the importance of representation. It really does matter!
Superheros were typically Caucasian male characters who possessed superpower abilities beyond those of ordinary people. They’re portrayed as these selfless human’s who use their superpower abilities to help rid these fictional worlds of destructive evil criminals trying to destroy the earth. For decades the superhero comics and movies enforced a “supremacist” narrative.
Enter the first predominantly African cast and crew superhero movie and the plot is masterfully layered — highlighting the impact of colonialism and imperialism. Africa was not only robbed of its people, culture, history, natural resources, ancient artefacts, and jewels. But perhaps the most devastating theft is the theft of her people’s identity.
Here’s what Boseman said about the movie’s impact. “You might say that this African nation is fantasy. But to have the opportunity to pull from real ideas, real places and real African concepts, and put it inside of this idea of Wakanda—that’s a great opportunity to develop a sense of what that identity is, especially when you’re disconnected from it.”
The central conflict in the movie also happens to bring to light the complex relationship between Africans born and raised on the continent and Africans in the diaspora. Although the film is connecting Blackness across national borders, it also acknowledges that Black Americans/‘African-Americans’, for centuries have been cruelly deprived of a meaningful connection to Africa. They are unable to trace back their roots because of colonization and slavery and the character Erik Killmonger did a fantastic job of bringing the reality of the tragic destruction caused by being cut off from one’s ancestors, culture, and heritage.
“T’Challa and Killmonger are mirror images, separated only by the accident of where they were born. What they don’t realise is that the greatest conflict you will ever face will be the conflict with yourself,” said Boseman.
Chadwick’s acting skills were not the only thing that made him perfect for the role of King T’Challa, he also embodied the spirit and attitude of the Black Panther in his own life. Boseman’s on and off set leadership style, qualities, mannerisms and treatment towards the cast but specifically the women is something many of his co-stars testified to and celebrated him for.
Not many people knew Boseman was fighting an intense battle against cancer, until his passing. He understood his assignment and was very well aware that publicising his battle would only get in the way of bringing to life a character that would not only expose and burry the Hollywoods continued effort to exclude the Black narrative under the lie that predominantly African led films bomb at the box office – more importantly he intrinsically understood that his portrayal of T’Challa represented so much more! It was a spiritual reparation of sorts, for the Black community throughout the diaspora.
There’s no denying the role the 2018 blockbuster film played in decolonising the superhero narrative. It’s crazy to think how one movie created such a seismic shift in and for the Black community throughout the diaspora. Not only were Black people able to see themselves as the superheroes that they are, but the award-winning film also degendered the narrative by highlighting the central role that women, particularly Black women play in life.
The movie’s attempt at deconstructing the one-dimensional strong Black woman narrative sparked some much-needed conversation about the pivotal role of women in society. The strong women of Wakanda (the ‘Dora Molaji’) served a greater purpose than just inspiration. Their presence and roles were a reflection of history and reality.
In his essay on African Warrior Queens, John Henrick Clarke said that in the years before colonialism, “Africans had produced a way of life where men were secure enough to let women advance as far as their talents would take them.”
European societies of that time believed that women were not intellectually capable of making political decisions. However, they were still viewed as more virtuous than their melanated counterparts.
Nakia, King T’Challa’s love interest played by the comparable Lupita Nyong’o is a powerhouse in her own right. The childhood friends spar as often as they flirt and share a deep bond of absolute trust and loyalty. Even though they fundamentally disagree on the method and strategy the two share a deep desire to eradicate injustice. However, after they save their people, King T’Challa begins to understand Nakia’s perspective and agrees to open the gates of Wakanda to the world, offering aid and technological support to their allies around the world.
“What you see in African communities— women tend to hold it down. They tend to be the ones that help further the cause of the community. So, we wanted to highlight that.” Said the film’s director Ryan Coogler.
The lie of white supremacy has co-opted the superhero narrative. It has robbed us of our history and identity. While Wakanda represents a fictional world, one cannot overstate its achievement in reinforcing historical African truths and values. It is our duty as parents, aunties and elders to constantly surround our children with images and narratives that affirm their intelligence, natural beauty, humanity and Africanness.
AoS has had the privilege of engaging and gleaning from some of our own homegrown platformed superheroes such as former ‘Miss Universe’ Zozibini Tunzi, who like Boseman is intrinsically aware of her chocolate skinned natural hair superpower. Zozi moves with razor-sharp vision despite insults that were hurled at her by the very people she is liberating. Nonetheless, her unwavering commitment to not just talking the talk but walking in her truth is an example that is saving countless chocolate skinned girls all over the world, from the destructive western beauty ideals and criminal narrative that women need to shrink themselves for the comfort of patriarchy.
In conversation with Olwethu Leshabane, host of “The Sit Down” Zozi said, “I wanted to show women that you can be beautiful by simply being yourself and wearing your natural crown without being ashamed.”
It’s important to note that there would be no chocolate skinned, natural-haired, taking up space Zozi without the Jacqui Mofokeng and Peggy-Sue Khumalo’s of our world. Truth be told, all of the above would not have been able to accomplish their superhero duties without the superhero work of their mothers who sacrificed, loved, and nurtured them despite all the obstacles they had to endure and overcome. When Khumalo was a guest on ‘The Sit Down’ she said;
“I always say that I feel my success, has mirrored the struggles, and hardship of my mom’s experiences being a domestic worker, being uneducated, not by choice being uneducated because the system rendered her to be a child labourer on a farm so that her family could live on that farm.”
To paraphrase a line from the hip hop song ‘New York Straight Talk’; we are not new to this, we are true to this. “Black Panther” is a tangible reminder of that. Next time you’re searching your mind for a superhero to point to, look in the mirror mom – not only are you a superhero, but you also gave birth to and are raising one.