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Black Panther – Beyond the hype

By Nanjala Nyabola, in Nairobi
Posted on Wednesday, 25 July 2018 09:49, updated on Friday, 8 March 2019 20:08

The Africa-focused Marvel superhero film starring Chadwick Boseman put Africa in the spotlight. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The Marvel comics juggernaut is a planetary success, and has been praised for breaking the stereotypes of blackness on cinema screens. What will it do for African filmmakers heroically telling their own stories about the continent?

Most of the cinemas in Nairobi’s central business district are gone. The Odeon went first, slowly devoured by residents’ increasing unease about moving through the downtown area. The Cameo held on a little bit longer, diversifying its business model to screen pornography during the day and religious movies on weekend mornings, sparing only weekend afternoons for international blockbusters. Kenya and Nairobi cinemas were the last to give over entirely to a church, as the others have done. Today, the massive speakers that once blared the words of Hollywood blockbusters browbeat attendees and passers-by with a reminder that life is fleeting and judgement for sinners will be harsh.

Only the 20th Century IMAX remains. Before Nairobi’s social life moved behind the high walls and electronic turnstiles of the innumerable shopping malls littering the city’s suburbs, 20th Century was the upmarket cinema. In its time it was state-of-the-art and the first IMAX screen in East Africa. Today, the burgundy seats are worn and dull, and the concession stand is a little worse for wear, but 20th Century chugs along, mainly serving Nairobi residents from working-class neighbourhoods who have been skipped by the mall-building frenzy.

Eventually, I don’t get to see Black Panther at the 20th Century. A week after its release, the Disney/Marvel juggernaut that made history as the best-performing film by a black director and the third best-performing film of all time is still hot and each of the six screenings on that unremarkable Sunday are sold out. The next available screening is on the following Tuesday at 8.30am, and I find myself wondering when was the last time that a cinema in Nairobi sold out like this.

Purity mythology

Black Panther is easily the most popular movie screened in Nairobi in recent years. This speaks as much about the links between Nairobi’s urban culture and global popular culture as about the film’s intrinsic appeal. If something is popular somewhere there’s probably a Nairobi sub-culture for it, whether it is skateboarding, manga comics, crocheting or Bitcoin mining. The film is part of the Marvel franchise, and the studio invested in social media promotion and creating a distinct subset of fans out of an already cult-like fandom.

The promotional material clearly framed the story as a return to purity mythology, leaning heavily on a version of Africa that resonated with but did not quite resemble the real thing. As such, many people feel that Black Panther’s cinematic victory is also a victory for Africa. This, goes the argument, was a triumph of representation of black people, and especially dark-skinned black women, who almost never have pride of place in mainstream films except as slaves (12 Years a Slave) or servants (The Help, The Butler). That three of the film’s leads – Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Daniel Kaluuya – have their roots on the continent (Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda respectively) is only icing on the cake. As Kenyan cultural commentator Njoki Ngumi pointed out at a public forum on the film: “Black Panther invites Africa to participate in its spectacle.”

African-american angle

For Nairobi’s film audiences, this invitation throws up some complications. Despite the lines snaking down the stairs at the 20th Century, neither the nearly eight million people on Facebook nor the one million on Twitter were the primary audience for Black Panther. The invitation is inadvertent – almost accidental. Black Panther is a movie for African-American filmgoers, claiming their piece of the franchise as well as of cinematic history. With Black Panther, a predominantly African-American cast demands to be seen, and the consuming audience underscores that these images are what they want to see. In the film, Africa is suggested heavily but never mentioned directly – it’s not an invitation between equals.

In Nairobi, the complication of Black Panther came to a head at the four-day Nairobi Film Festival (NFF), held at the suburban Prestige Mall Cinemax about a month after the juggernaut opened. The festival is a deliberately intimate project of Sheba Hirst and Mbithi Masya. Masya is one third of the massively successful afro-electric pop group Just A Band, and the film festival is the next stage of a fascinating artistic journey. He premiered his first feature-length film, Kati Kati – a parable about shame and judgement linked overtly to key Kenyan political moments – at the first NFF in 2017 to rapturous reception.

“Film and music have really impacted my life,” Masya says. “I don’t see it as entertainment. There’s a lot of enrichment that can be found in the arts.”

Those who saw Kati Kati loved it, but compared to Black Panther its audience of 7,000 people over the two weeks it screened is small. Even the most popular films at the NFF had lower viewership as films were only screened once, which helps to keep costs down. The festival is held over Easter Weekend, when millions of Nairobi residents leave the city. Generally attendance is steady but relatively low, even though the quality and diversity of films on show is breathtaking.

During the festival, several members of Kenya’s filmmaking family took to Twitter to express their frustration. “How many people even knew that there was a Nairobi Film Festival?” asked one director, as part of a longer rant over people failing to support local film. A member of the crew of Supa Modo, a film that was screened at the NFF, went on an even longer diatribe, chastising audiences for showing up en masse for Black Panther and barely looking over to this little Kenyan film that had already won audience awards at film festivals such as the Berlinale.

“He hadn’t seen the numbers before he went on that rant,” says Likarion Wainaina, the director of Supa Modo, “and in a way it was a little unfair because people did come out and see Supa Modo, just not on that first day”.

It’s easy to read Supa Modo against Black Panther. The former is a touching story about a young girl, Jo, in a Kenyan village who must tap into her imagination and lean on the support of her mother, older sister and a motley cast of villagers to navigate some overwhelming news. ‘Supa Modo’ is a slang term that loosely translates as ‘super hero’, but whereas Jo’s heroine is low-fi, low-budget and defined mostly by her humanity, Black Panther’s T’Challa has every high-tech luxury and even the supernatural at his disposal. In the Africa of Black Panther, superheroes are born of secret minerals, advanced technology and the metaphysical. In Jo’s Africa, superheroes are forged from love.

“Supa Modo is not a superhero film,” says Wainaina, although oblique references to other superhero films permeate the story. Like T’Challa or Clark Kent, Jo’s Supa Modo has the heart for and intention of saving her whole village, but she doesn’t have the budget or the magic.

Underwhelmed

In some ways, this is a metaphor for the David and Goliath contest between the two films. Supa Modo has a nearly non-existent budget for marketing, barely received any support from the Kenyan government and was supported primarily by One Fine Day and Ginger Ink Films, social projects of European and North American filmmakers. Between them, the two initiatives have produced nearly all the Kenyan films that have managed to gain overseas success.

It makes sense, therefore, that frustrated filmmakers would be quick to compare the success of Black Panther with the struggle to get the numbers out for Supa Modo. But Kati Kati director Masya argues that the brute comparison of numbers obscures a complicated story. “There were more muted reactions to [Black Panther] than outright positive reactions,” he says. “There was more social media hype than enthusiasm for the film itself.” He thinks that people saw the film because it was a sensation but left a little underwhelmed because its representations of Africa were simplistic and flat. It may never show in the United States but, after a relatively slow start, Supa Modo is still on screens in Nairobi and Mombasa four weeks after the film festival, primarily because of audience demand.

Not all Kenya’s filmmakers saw Black Panther as competition. Masya loved the film – he saw it in the cinema twice – but part of that was because he had been steeped in the Marvel lore long before the film was announced. Knowing that the comic superhero was a product of a racialised US in the 1960s, he was better prepared for the simplistic representations of Africa, and of blackness more broadly. “They did relatively well considering the problematic source material,” he says. “A film is not a PhD thesis – it is an art piece, and an art piece always has a point of view. What this film does is it fixes the base for more complex storytelling in future iterations.”

Black without borders

Wanuri Kahiu, director of the short science-fiction film Pumzi and of Rafiki, the first Kenyan film to feature in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, agrees. Like Masya, she thinks Black Panther did something important for the black filmmaking world simply by demanding that blackness be seen on an equal footing as whiteness.

“It had conversations I had never heard in cinema before,” Kahiu says. “It had an expression of African-ness in it that, even though a little schizo­phrenic, was important. I loved the creation of a pan-African Africa!” Kahiu believes that Black Panther has opened up space for black filmmaking all over the world by amplifying the possibility of the black superhero.

It is interesting though, that pan-­African ideology – the concept of a unified Africa stretching across and even beyond the continental territory – was also developed in the diaspora by thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Like Black Panther, it arose in the absence of a primary connection with the source material – an idea designed to fill a void in the political imagination of the millions who were violently sold into slavery.

Afrofuturism is a recent idea that has developed along similar lines. It makes both Kahiu and Masya bristle. “I don’t like the label,” says Masya, “because it’s a big label applied to anything that sees Africa in a modern light. To me, with that label, black people are always the other.” Kahiu adds: “Afrofuturism should have its roots in Africa. But right now it doesn’t have enough links to the roots, legends or spirituality of Africa. Yet if you think about our creation myths for example, Africa has always been this thing that ‘Afrofuturism’ claims is new.”

This is consistent with her reading of Black Panther as primarily aimed at Western audiences: “Afrofuturism was initially conceptualised as a way for the black diaspora to re-imagine themselves into a future they had largely been written out of. But when we cast everything that shows Africa as other than a place where people are sad, hungry or in need of help as ‘Afrofuturism’, what does that say about what we imagine Africa to be?”

Instead, Kahiu prefers to label films like hers and Masya’s as “afro bubble gum” – “fun, fierce and frivolous African content that glorifies joy and hope. We laugh and celebrate life and connectedness.”

Kahiu also loved Black Panther, even while she recognises that there were some issues in the film. She found the accents disorienting, although she points out that part of what makes Winston Duke’s M’Baku so captivating as a character is that he uses a real accent that could exist on the continent rather than Hollywood’s stereotypical “African” accent. “That generic accent that makes Africans sound submissive and simple,” she says, singling out Chadwick Boseman and Forest Whitaker as culprits. “While M’Baku’s accent is unapologetic, brave and just so himself.”

Unapologetic, brave and herself is something Kahiu aspires to in all of her films, even while facing struggles that the makers of Black Panther could never imagine. At the time of writing, Rafiki, a tender lesbian love story set in one of Nairobi’s suburbs during a campaign rally, was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board. “Only perverts and sexual deviants would want to see a film that has been banned,” said Ezekiel Mutua, chief of the Board and self-­appointed moral policeman, never mind that the film was set to debut at Cannes just over a week later.

Hidden struggles

Yet the same board ruled that Black Panther’s hyper-realistic portrayals of violence were acceptable even for children. Kahiu maintains that Rafiki is a film about hope that happens to feature lesbians; Mutua says it is un-Kenyan.

In an ideal world, the space that Wainaina, Masya and Kahiu believe Black Panther opened up would have cleared a path for films like Rafiki, telling African stories on their own terms. In reality, for every inch gained by the triumph of the film, another is lost due to both lack of resources and institutions that don’t want Kenyan audiences imagining anything disruptive. The movie profited vastly from its affiliation with Africa and the return to purity fantasy but has so far had little impact on the material possibilities available to African filmmakers. And because Black Panther primarily faced a Western audience, the stories of the struggles behind getting these films made and then seen often go unnoticed.

Still, Black Panther got Kenyans to head back to the cinema in droves, and the subsequent conversation on supporting our own the same way we supported this Western film is arguably propelling Supa Modo’s success. Cinemas become churches because those who own them believe people no longer pay money to watch films in the cinema. Because of this interconnected success, film is once again a hot topic in Nairobi, reminding cinema owners that there is still an audience and a hunger for films in the city, and opening up a small space that local films like Supa Modo are sneaking through.

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