Why the Revolutionary ‘Black Panther’ Will Change how the Film and Media Industry Imagines Africa

Words: Emma Roberts
Featured Image: Matt Kennedy

Breaking the mould for superhero movies and Western cinema alike, Black Panther is Marvel’s triumphant celebration of African culture. On February 13th, the film’s opening day in the UK, box office takings were £2.67 million. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira the story takes place in the futuristic African nation of Wakanda, where King T’Challa (Boseman) faces challenger rebels seeking his throne.

From left, Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia and Letitia Wright as Shuri in “Black Panther.” Matt Kennedy/ Marvel and Disney

The overwhelmingly positive response is a result of the film’s undiluted representation of black culture and what Africa might have become in the absence of colonialism. For many, this is the first chance to see an accurate representation of themselves in mainstream cinema, giving young children a superhero they can fully identify with. Previous Marvel films have often lacked lead black characters entirely, so audiences are exultant to finally see a science fiction movie where black characters are front and center.

An aspect of the film which has impressed people the most are the costumes and styling. People are praising the authenticity of the costume design, drawn from research into indigenous tribes, and the cultural significance of the body art and jewellery. Costume Designer, Ruth E Carter, spoke to Vogue about her experience working on the film. With a team of 100, Carter speaks of the depth of her research, which began in June 2016, 8 months before production began; “I selected things from indigenous tribes and implemented them in a futuristic model. Because the culture that [director] Ryan Coogler created is unique, I could combine elements of many African tribes – including the colour red, the triangle shape, neck rings and beadwork – without worrying about cultural appropriation. I don’t like it when I see depictions of indigenous African people who are unrealistic, or speak to the wrong view of what Africa is – a darker, negative view of it.”

Not only are the designs a realistic image of Afrofuturism, but are also a triumph for the technology use to create them. Carter explains to Vogue, “Take queen Ramonda, played by Angela Bassett. She is the leader of a forward-thinking nation that has greater technology than anywhere else, so her costume had to be grandiose.” Her shoulder mantle was created by the world’s largest 3-D printer in Belgium. Her crown, another technological weaving feat, “had to be totally cylindrical, so, unlike the hand-crafted uniforms of her armed forces, it would stand out for its pure perfection”. As a result of her success, critics are already pointing to Carter for a nomination for Costume design at the 2019 Oscars.

Reshaping beauty standards for young black girls are the female leads in the film. Lupita Nyong’o who plays Nakia and Danai Gurira who plays Okoye spoke to Gal-Dem about their experience and on creating an image of unchanged, triumphant and authentic black beauty. “These were images we were starved for,” says Lupita, “and we know that the reason why everyone is responding to this already before the film is out is because as human beings, we relish in fantasy and seeing the world as it could be, seeing the other-worldliness in ourselves and those kind of images.” Late last year Lupita called out Grazia Magazine for their insulting photoshopping of her natural hair, saying #DTMH, a phrase later used by Solange Knowles when the Evening Standard Magazine made the same mistake. She tells Gal-Dem, “The fact that this particular image has natural hair, and dark skin, and women in positions of power, it’s just a whole lot of things that are really just going to change the way children see themselves in the back of their heads. It doesn’t even have to be a direct effect but it’s the re-conditioning of the subconscious mind and that’s where real change comes.” Awareness for the acceptance of all hair types was recently raised by Nyong’o’s cover for Allure’s ‘The Culture of Hair’ issue, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, which she styled her own hair for.

For Danai, the film is not only an opportunity to give black women an image to identify with, but for African people as a whole to see what their culture right have looked like without colonisation; “The idea that we never got to see the uncolonised Africa, we don’t know what we could’ve been without the intrusion and the assault of colonisation. What if we took command of our resources instead of letting the west and the east leech them out?” Lupita continues, “It’s not a nostalgic image of Africa, which is something that we’re used to. Everything you see in this film is deliberate and it’s taken from actual cultures from around the continent.”

In essence, Black Panther has surprised audiences by executing such an important project in such an authentic way. Not only does the film signal a turning point for the film industry, it also shines a light on the issues surrounding Westernised, white-washed images of black culture throughout the media. With hope, Black Panther will set an example for other films, TV shows and magazines, and we will finally begin to see Africa in a different light on our screens.