Black Panther raises the bar

Marvel's first screen outing with a black protagonist is seen as a celebration of all things African, with its influence stretching to fashion

Michael B. Jordan (left) plays Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in Black Panther.
Michael B. Jordan (left) plays Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in Black Panther. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Director Ryan Coogler's first superhero film has been racking up one glowing notice after another from critics and fans, with many calling it the most well-made and culturally significant superhero movie in years.

Black Panther currently has a 97 per cent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it the best reviewed live-action superhero film on the website, tying it with the animated hit The Incredibles (2004) as the top-rated superhero movie, period.

But Marvel's first screen outing with a black protagonist has also attracted its share of controversy and opprobrium.

An alt-right Facebook group calling itself "Down With Disney's Treatment Of Franchises And Its Fanboys" tried to start a campaign to sabotage the film's Rotten Tomatoes score, urging members to flood the latter with poor reviews to "give Black Panther a rotten audience score".

Speaking to the website Inverse, the group claimed that Disney - which owns Marvel - had paid off critics to create "falsified bad press" for the rival DCEU, or DC Comics' Extended Universe of superhero films.

It said making a film about a black superhero with a mostly black cast was a bid to "shove SJW (social-justice warrior) messages down our throats", adding that "minorities... should stay that way".

In the end, the campaign fizzled.

Rotten Tomatoes said it would not condone any hate speech on its site and the group's Facebook page was later deactivated.

But in addition to the racially motivated alt-right backlash - which includes social media trolls trashing the film even before seeing it - there has been some unhappiness within black communities too.

Last month, Twitter and other social-media platforms erupted over the suggestion that some black women might want to boycott the film because star Michael B. Jordan - who plays the movie's villain, Killmonger - was rumoured to have a white girlfriend. But it later emerged there was no such boycott in the works.

The film has also sparked a broader debate about its cultural impact - with a lively discussion around hashtags such as #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe.

One strand concerns whether there is cultural appropriation in the way it draws from various African cultures to create the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, with elements from all over the continent - including Uganda, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia - used in the costume and production design as well as choreography and cinematography.

The characters also speak English and Xhosa, a South African dialect.

Some social-media users from continental Africa accuse the film's African-American creators of inappropriately borrowing from the continent's cultures to create this pastiche.

But others on the continent see it more as a celebration of all things African and, indeed, CNN reports that there is "palpable excitement" about the film among African fans.

This is partly because while it is not the first Hollywood movie about a black superhero (there was 1998's Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire; and the 2008 Will Smith movie, Hancock, among others), this is the one with the most "African" storyline: It is set in a fictional African kingdom and with the actors speaking Xhosa and wearing African culture-inspired costumes.

And there have been other ripple effects from the film.

At its London premiere last week, stars and fans thronged the premiere decked out in striking African attire from all corners of the continent.

The fashion industry has taken notice.

At New York Fashion Week last Monday, seven designers staged a runway show with pieces inspired by the film, and if it proves to be the commercial hit many expect, African styles may well be a new trend in clothing this year.

• Black Panther is showing in cinemas.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline Black Panther raises the bar. Subscribe