“Tell me something,” demands Ulysses Klaue, a one-armed white South African arms dealer, in one of the early scenes of Marvel’s “Black Panther.” “What do you know about Wakanda?”
“Textiles, shepherds, cool outfits,” replies Everett Ross, the CIA agent interrogating him, flippantly describing the fictional African kingdom at the heart of the film. “It’s a third world country.”
On a recent afternoon in a Johannesburg movie theater, the audience laughed appreciatively. It was a biting African stereotype – the kind all too common in Hollywood – but for once, it didn’t sting.
That was because this time, everyone watching knew, the joke was on the white guys. In the “Black Panther” universe, after all, Wakanda is secretly the world’s most advanced civilization, a gilded city-state that looks like Star Wars met Singapore in the center of Timbuktu.
“In South Africa, we’ve been watching these movies all our lives – ‘Batman,’ ‘Superman,’ ‘Captain America’ – and every time the mask comes off it’s a white man,” says John Kani, a celebrated South African theater actor and writer who plays the father of Wakanda’s king. “But this time you take off the mask and the hero is me. The hero is all of us in Africa and the diaspora. It’s a remarkable thing.”
But if many here saw themselves in the film’s heroes, some also saw glimmers of themselves in its villain, a man whose struggle for racial justice holds many parallels to African history. Still, for audiences across Africa, “Black Panther” has inspired widespread celebration, offering up a world that many here have never before seen on the big screen: their own. The film set new box office records in East and West Africa on its opening weekend, and a week later continues to screen to sold out audiences across the continent. Worldwide, it has already earned more than $427 million.
“It was so unexpected, I can’t even begin to describe it,” said Nomthandazo Hlanguza, a banker, as she walked out of a Johannesburg cinema earlier this week. “It’s exactly the opposite of everything we’re taught to think of as African.”
Indeed, the fictional Wakanda, a place that was never colonized and made wealthy by its mineral resources, feels like a kind of futuristic alt-Africa, a vision of what the continent might look like without European domination (and with the help of some otherworldly superhero technology).
“Sometimes we think that we have two choices to make in Africa,” wrote Anyang’ Nyong’o, a Kenyan politician and the father of the film’s star Lupita Nyong’o, in a Nairobi newspaper this month. “Choice one: We maintain our traditions and cultures and stay backward forever. Choice two: We modernize by becoming westernized and forgetting our cultural traditions which, by their very nature so we think, are stuck in the past. The experience of the Wakanda people teaches us otherwise.”
Meanwhile, the film’s repeated nods to the continent’s real-life languages, fashion, architecture, and music are a raucous celebration of the Africa that is. Wakanda’s warriors dress in traditional woven Basotho blankets from Lesotho and checkered east African Maasai prints. Their skyscrapers look like sleek modernist updates of the spiked earthen towers of Timbuktu. Its teenage rocket-scientist princess blasts South African house music while she tinkers with her inventions, and Wakandans speak to each other in isiXhosa, a South African language.
“At the premiere in Johannesburg, the first time you hear my son speak to me in isiXhosa, the audience erupted,” Mr. Kani says, recalling last week’s opening here. “At that moment it stopped being just a movie. It became something that connected us all.”
But if African audiences saw themselves in Wakanda and the film’s heroes – the king T’Challa and his chiseled ensemble of Wakanda’s warriors and royals – many also saw glimmers of their own experience in that of Black Panther’s nemesis N’Jadaka, aka Erik “Killmonger” Stevens.
Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, is T’Challa’s cousin, who grew up in a rough corner of Oakland, Calif., marred by drugs and violence. He returns to Wakanda bent on using the kingdom’s formidable resources to free oppressed black people around the world.
“Where I’m from, when black folks started revolutions, they never had the resources to fight their oppressors,” he explains. “That ends today.”
In the black-and-white moral universe of the superhero movie, Killmonger is indisputably the bad guy – but for Africans whose recent history is littered with violent uprisings against white rule, his experience has shades of gray.
“I think he left the audience very conflicted – he was a hero and a villain at the same time,” says Rashieda Witter, an art historian and cultural critic in Johannesburg. “Even if they’d disagree with his methods, I think a lot of people would agree with his idea that an African country with those kind of resources should be able to use them to uplift other countries.”
For Kani, meanwhile, Killmonger’s presence in the film was a reflection on the choices black communities make every day.
When he first read the script, he says, he thought of South Africa in the years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Should the country set up tribunals to punish apartheid’s villains and send them to jail, many asked? “But we decided ultimately that we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to hand over the baggage of our past to future generations,” he says. “In a way, Wakanda had the same choice to make.”
But he says the film’s politics aren’t as important as the simple fact of its existence. Now, he says, there’s indisputable proof that an African superhero can be a blockbuster success in America.
“Some people have said to me, this film is anti-revolutionary,” he says. “And I say, ‘Oh please, don’t overthink it. It’s a comic book story.’ ”