Last night, as I emerged from a late-night screening of Black Panther, I came face-to-face with the amazing cultural impact of this landmark film. At 12.30 am, I had to squeeze through a tiny gap in the huge crowd that filled the cinema lobby, waiting to enter and view a movie that would probably end around 3.00 am.
Why would these Lagosians, normally tucked safely in their beds prior to Sunday morning church, be so desperate to see a film? The anticipation has been unprecedented, for a production based on a comic book I first read when I was around 8 years old. At that time, it was the only character of African origin and one of the few, including Thor and the Fantastic Four, that I connected with. Racial identity didn’t mean that much to me at the time because I was growing up in Jamaica and felt quite secure in who I was.
After years of living in the UK and now Nigeria, it’s easy to see why a Black superhero is so important for so many people, especially in the era of Trump and a seeming regression in the progress made in race relations around the world. In Africa, where the sense of leadership failure is palpable, a strong, noble and capable leader like ‘T’Challa’, in a successful, modern nation, is an elusive dream still cherished by many. And, for Black people around the world, Black Panther is a rare opportunity to see themselves portrayed positively in a Hollywood film or series, knowing that a huge global audience has a chance to see them as noble, intelligent, capable and heroic as well. Already, we know that thousands of young people, especially girls, will be inspired to take more of an interest in science and technology because of ‘Princess Shuri’, perhaps the coolest character in the movie.
As you would probably expect, my take on the film is a little different and has more to do with the setting of the story – the fictional African country of ‘Wakanda’, a technologically advanced, independent nation that has never been colonised. While its futuristic capital and economically stable way of life is hidden from the world by a force field, it appears to be nothing more than a typically impoverished, ‘third world’ sh*thole, as the leader of the free world so eloquently puts it. As the sole source of ‘vibranium’, the world’s strongest and most precious mineral, Wakanda’s reclusion over the centuries is deliberate and strategic, to avoid exploitation and plunder.
While this is clearly the stuff of fantasy, it reveals a fascinating possibility – something I have wondered about for many years. What would Africa have become if it had managed to retain control of its rich resources and, through strong and wise leadership, developed robust and progressive economies? As a child, I remember when the oil-producing developing countries formed OPEC and began to control the price of oil, sending the world economy into a tailspin. The western economies recovered and the OPEC countries with visionary leadership, like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the UAE, began to prosper beyond their wildest dreams. Meanwhile, Africa, the largest source of the world’s most precious minerals – gold, diamonds, copper, oil and coltan – remained desperately poor and mired in conflict.
I’m willing to bet that Africa’s super-rich leaders and their pampered offspring will watch this movie as pure entertainment, ‘marvelling’ with the rest of us at the advancement and prosperity of this fictional state, without ever considering that some version of Wakanda is still possible on the continent. The truth is that, with purposeful leadership, it could happen in our lifetime, just as we’ve seen Dubai’s inexorable rise in just two or three decades.
Can a whole continent be devoid of real-life heroes as leaders? In Black Panther, even the ‘bad guy’, the formidable ‘Erik Killmonger’, is really a good guy, if a little misguided. He wants to become king of Wakanda, so that he can use their weapons and other resources to instigate the liberation of Black people around the world and make them a dominant force. Imagine that – an African nation giving aid to less fortunate people in other countries and helping them to gain economic freedom.
I believe that the potential leaders are out there somewhere. Perhaps one of them is reading this and wondering if he or she has the strength for the task. In the film, when T’Challa is being prepared to replace his dead father as king, he has a vision of the old man and tells him that he is afraid to lead. In a powerful moment, his father reminds him that a man has failed if he hasn’t prepared his children to take his place. I’m certain that many young people in Africa are more prepared than they realise – especially those who have worked and been schooled in the world’s most advanced economies – but they lack the courage and conviction necessary to assume leadership.
One thing we learn from Black Panther, is that sometimes a leader has to be more than wise and visionary – sometimes a leader has to be courageous and face down all challengers who would lead a nation down the wrong path. Sometimes you have to be a hero and a warrior.
So, while we wait for Africa’s new leaders to emerge, I’ll be dreaming of Wakanda – a fantasy more possible than we could ever imagine.
“The world is changing. Soon there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” ~ King T’Chaka to T’Challa in Black Panther
“Let’s face it – think of Africa, and the first images that come to mind are of war, poverty, famine and flies. How many of us really know anything at all about the truly great ancient African civilizations, which in their day, were just as splendid and glorious as any on the face of the earth?” ~ Henry Louis Gates