The cast of the most talked-about movie of 2018 told us why they think audiences are responding to its Afrofuturist, egalitarian vision
This week, po-faced TV presenter Jeremy Vine sparked controversy when he remarked that Black Panther, one of the most hyped Marvel films in recent history, is unusual because it’s “overwhelmingly black”.
Though his phrasing was way off-base, he had sort of a point: this is a markedly different superhero movie. With a 90 per cent black cast, the film is visibly unlike most blockbusters. It became the most-tweeted about movie in the world of the year so far, having amassed more than five million tweets. “The Black Panther Challenge” saw black people set up GoFundMe pages to raise money to take black children to see the film – it now has over 300 campaigns worldwide, with over $320,000 (£232,000) dollars raised. The film has sold more advance tickets on US movie ticket site Fandango than any other Marvel film ever. There have been viral videos of children dancing when they learned they were going to see the film.
At the European premiere, furs, patterns, headdresses, afros, and pops of colour descended on the Hammersmith Apollo in London. It was all very black, including the black carpet, where we met the cast – Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, and Danai Gurira – who told us why this is such a big cultural moment.
PEOPLE NEED TO SEE BLACK HEROES
Daniel Kaluuya (W’Kabi) is no stranger to heroism, given his Oscar-nominated role in Get Out. Instead of bashing in the skulls of racist body-snatching white people, this time he’s fighting towards a stronger Wakanda by empowering black people worldwide – although honourable it’s not always clear whether he’s fighting the right fight. Regardless, he’s sure that black people deserve to see themselves as conquerors. “Every other race gets to see that. We need to not see it as special, it should be normal. Kids need to see an empowering narrative before society puts their narrative upon them.”
Michael B. Jordan agrees. His character, Erik Killmonger, and W’Kabi grow close in the film, eventually becoming rivals to the Black Panther. “When I think about what this would have meant to me and my confidence, and how it would have impacted on what I thought was possible at that age, of course, it’s important,” he says.
ITS AFROFUTURISM HELPS US TO UNPACK TODAY’S ISSUES
Letitia Wright, who portrays Wakanda’s technological mastermind Shuri, thinks that the sci-fi elements and Afrofuturist aesthetic is needed in order to push complex issues into the mainstream. “There are so many things that need to be addressed, and sometimes people can only listen when you add fictional elements to it,” she says. “We draw you in, but we leave you with something. We're just trying to mix the two (real issues and elements of fantasy) together to get a message out.”
It feels weird to call a superhero movie an “issues” movie, but Black Panther is layered with purposeful metaphors, all of them stacked to ask pertinent questions: what is the relationship between Africa and black people scattered worldwide? Do we have a duty to help each other? The futuristic country of Wakanda demonstrates the same insular mindset of most Western nations: reluctant to give foreign aid to anyone who isn’t “their own”.
IT IS ONE OF THE ONLY ACTION FILMS WHERE WOMEN HOLD THEIR OWN
“Power in Wakanda doesn't look the same, which I love,” explains Lupita Nyong’o. She spends the majority of the film fighting alongside men as an equal. “Power is not just about strength, it's about being able to have agency in your life, and that includes vulnerability.”
“We have beautiful examples of women who are powerful in different ways, they own their own space, and they're about to realise their full potential because they are from a nation that has recognised that you get further when you use the potential of all your citizens.”
THE WORLD NEEDS TO SEE WHAT AFRICA COULD HAVE BEEN
In an interesting twist, Wakanda isn’t an impoverished third world country. It’s a powerhouse; an untouched, self-sustained, African utopia. “The world they are in is a character in many ways. It's a character that was never colonised. It didn't go through that assault, it didn't go through that abuse, it didn't go through any of that – as a result, it has defined its truest, full self, and that was a very powerful self,” says Danai Gurira.
As another female warrior, Gurira’s dialogue often flips common notions of gender and race on its head (notably in one scene where she calls Americans “primitive”). She feels that by looking at what could have been, we will understand why we are still having conversations about race. “You always see the dire parts (of Africa) and it sticks. This movie obliterates all of that, and obliterates the idea that Africa can’t function.”
“There are a lot of things in this movie that is not fictitious, they are based on real things, real people, real abilities and we pulled from real examples – right through from design to character, and I think that is something that is so important. What did we miss when we didn't get to self-determine. We missed out on a lot. I love that Wakanda shows that.“