BLACK Panther, the pre-blockbuster season blockbuster, hit the local theatres last Thursday. Guyanese poured into theatres. I read just enough online to keep an open mind about the film. I wanted not only to watch the much-talked-about and highly praised film which had social media lit up for weeks before it premiered here, but I wanted to observe its effects on other movie-goers as well. And when CNN Money stated that even the non-traditional music produced for the film, “could change the music industry”, my interest peaked, yet I tried to quell my excitement, temper my anxiousness.
With a largely black cast in powerful roles, young black director Ryan Coolger, 31, led a big-budget project to even bigger success at the box-office. Yet being able to identify, if only in geography, with members of the cast, Guyana-born, Letitia Wright (actress), Brazil-born Jamaican, Nabiyah Be (actress), Trinidad & Tobago, Winston Duke (actor), Bahamian-born, Jason Elwood Hanna (stunts), was a huge draw for many. It’s a line-up which caused my LinkedIn connection Natalie Dookie to remark, “Never underestimate the power of the Caribbean diaspora – they are everywhere and in every sector and in most every country of the world. “
I planned to see the Black Panther after the crowds thinned, then decided to go early instead. It was a gamble that as it opened, with Thursday being a normal work and school day, the theatre wouldn’t be too crowded. I got tickets on the spot for the first show. The risk paid off. And, I went again yesterday, this time wearing a white long-sleeved shirt designed and gifted by Sonia Noel. It was the closest thing to “African wear” I had to connect with the film as other movie-goers are wont to do. A fad which caused my friend Savita Balkaran to muse, “If we dressed culturally to see the movie, ‘Black Panther’, does that mean we should do the same for, ‘Fifty Shades Freed’?”. Something else to think about.
I sat in the theatre early, thinking, watching people file in and fill the seats. There was a throng of youths, among them some students from School of the Nations by their t-shirts, then girls in hijabs with faces radiating sunlight, a nurse came in with a huge bag of popcorn. Then a familiar face with that distinct voice, Russell Lancaster, and with him a different complexion in the audience, his contemporaries and mine.
Black Panther had everything you have come to expect from Marvel movies — a good storyline, its heroes and villains, with more than a few good lines, a love story or two and the other stuff which drives persons like me of the male gender to theatres, lots of “action”: guns going off and things blowing up. I thought too about structure and form, and language-use; the marriage of themes, though I will be the first to admit that as far as movie franchises like Marvel and DC go, I am absolutely unfamiliar with all the intricacies of the connected universes.
Black Panther offered much more than the usual, as my pal Christopher France said succinctly on Facebook, “It was refreshing to see a movie where the black characters weren’t just “the funny best friend” or “the wise spiritual black” or “the nerdy black sidekick” or “the angry black woman”. In Black Panther, black people were ALL of those things, but fully realised characters who were more than just a stereotypical one-off. There were characters that black boys and especially little black girls could look up to and be like: “I wanna be like that”. That kind of thing is a big deal because representation matters.”
I sat spellbound for the duration of the film in appreciation of the cinematic mastery of art imitating life, great fiction, yet revealing something universal about ourselves. I thought about Mahadhi Das’ “Call me the need of rain”, and Martin Carter, “fleeing the oppressors hate and scorn of myself” and Fred D’Aguiar, ‘The Longest Memory’ and how “memory is pain trying to resurrect itself”. And I thought about those larger issues which were the focus of that seminal text, ‘Themes in African-Guyanese History’.
Sitting in that theatre seeing the future of Guyana walk in and sit down side by side, young people from all hues, I thought of our Guyanese experience, our long struggle. Black Panther’s gift of inclusivity is gratifying, that even with superheroes who save the day, whether our individual mission is to “serve” or “save” the country we each have great roles to play. And leadership matters. Governments still have a function in protecting the people; alleviating suffering by putting in place adequate, relevant policies in areas such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. Black Panther is a celebration of all this, and it’s a celebration of our humanity. Regardless of race we have a purpose, our lives matter and together we can change the world.
The Black Panther’s wisdom and T’Challa’s words were profound and poignant as they were honest and hopeful in this post-Obama age and Guyana’s new dispensation. He was right, “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”