Black Panther and re-imagining Africa: an interview with Lupita and Danai

The release of the long awaited Black Panther movie signifies a re-imagining of afrofuturism and how the West, and Hollywood, views African countries. Based in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a technological advanced land that hides its wealth from the rest of the world, Ryan Coogler’s film follows the new king T’Challa and the challengers vying for his throne. gal-dem had the opportunity to sit down with two stars from the film, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira, to discuss the importance of representation in Sci-Fi for black women and why Wakanda is such a powerful concept.

Despite black women’s significant contributions to the genre (see Octavia Butler, Nnedia Okorafor, etc.), we rarely, if ever, see ourselves represented in the world of popular science fiction. For the sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters that grace our cinemas each year, black women being depicted on-screen is a near myth. In the 2012 film Avengers, there was not a single black woman playing a character of substantial significance. Unfortunately, this kind of erasure is something we have become used to. So then, to see black women in Black Panther – dark-skinned black women with natural hair (or no hair) as main characters who engage in fighting and are seen as powerful warriors protecting the realm, as well as intelligent engineers, politicians, and advisers, feels utterly surreal.

“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.” For Lupita, who plays Nakia, the impact of Black Panther goes beyond entertainment. “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.”

However, such a change takes time, particularly as many black women have grown up seeing depictions of what beauty should look like, which has never included us. Danai, who plays Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, explains, “The idea of young girls or women seeing these images, I think it is shocking but it is something that we’re still in, which is that understanding of, of course you should embrace your dark skin and, of course it’s beautiful. But there’s that journey that journey that we’re still on in terms of seeing imagery that allows young women to understand their beauty, their power and their ferocity in exactly how they were made to be.”

“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…”

One of the most powerful aspects of Black Panther is how it’s reshaping the representation of African countries. We talked about the importance of Wakanda and as Danai put it, “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.” The notion of a land like Wakanda is so impactful because it illustrates a parallel universe, showing an African nation that was never colonised, and allowed to flourish into something wonderful and powerful without intrusion. She went on to explain, “what if we took command of our resources instead of letting the west and the east leech them out?”

The image of Wakanda is so important because it’s a modern depiction. Lupita explained “it’s not a nostalgic image of Africa, which is something that we’re used to.” She went on to discuss the singular narrative that Africa is often portrayed as, it’s “either going to be on National Geographic, or it’s going to be poverty”. Black Panther completely subverts these rigid and problematic depictions of Africa, and raises questions of how future African powers might interact with the diaspora abroad. Nyong’o concluded that “technology is Wakandan tradition and that’s a very powerful image for even Africans to look at.” However, this futuristic focus does not come at the cost of historical reverence – both technology and tradition can be combined. “They’re able to honour them [traditions] but they’re not burdened by them and they’re not dated by them either, they are the future, the tradition is futuristic”. Black Panther is truly a portrayal of afrofuturism at its best.

“‘we’re still on a journey in terms of seeing imagery that allows young women to understand their beauty, their power and their ferocity in exactly how they were made to be.'”

Although Wakanda is mythical country, it’s very much based on a combination of actual cultures. Black Panther makes sure to to pay homage to the beautiful and intricate cultures found within Africa. As Nyong’o put it, “Everything you see in this film is deliberate and it’s taken from actual cultures from around the continent”. She mused “we’re seeing it in the framing of beauty and wealth which is where it belongs anyway but unfortunately that’s not how it’s been painted for a very long time”. And that’s why Wakanda has become such a successful notion because they’re “paying respect to our past and honouring it and offering the future at the same time.” Gurira expressed why  “exploring and respecting” parts of “truly African cultural components” is so important. Black Panther does its utmost to prove that “there’s a lot of respect to be had for what Africa naturally possesses”.

Black Panther is truly inspiring and surreal to watch. For us, as black women witnessing other black women taking up space in the forefront of science fiction is exciting and promising.  In fact, two black women sitting down to interview two black women starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, about their views on dark-skinned women and their representation seems almost like the stuff of fiction itself. Thankfully, it’s not.

 

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