A black panther, like a white tiger, is almost a chimaera. Usually, panthers are tawny yellow with dark spots; the entirely black ones are a rarity in their melanism and occurrence. The new Marvel film Black Panther has been acclaimed for putting forward a black superhero. This celebration of blackness has been described as being part of a cultural movement for starting long-overdue conversations on race. The movie succeeds in creating a vibrant, empowering space for black representation, and also portrays valuable ideas on wildlife and environmental sustainability.
You could search forests for black panthers – used as an acceptable term for the melanistic black jaguars found in Central and Southern America and the melanistic black leopards found in Asia (often in Kabini, Karnataka) – and never be able to actually see one. The fact that the film refers to a panther who is ‘black’ is not just a corporeal allusion to the protagonist, Prince T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman), and his skin colour. In the movie’s mythology, this is more a symbol of uncommonness as found in the wild black panther. This is significant because the movie consistently inverts the very meaning of what it means to be black. Being black is about being empowered rather than being the victim.
Most of the film is set in the fictitious African country of Wakanda. Unsurprisingly, the world thinks the country is poor and backward, perpetuating the usual stereotype that homogenises all countries in the entire African continent as impoverished intellectually and financially. In reality, Wakanda is a wondrous country with technology far exceeding that of the rest of the world because it contains exclusive reserves of the mineral called vibranium.
It is also interesting to see how Black Panther deals with notions of African bestiality. Colonialists called Africa the ‘dark continent’ for its thick forest cover and unfamiliarity; it was characterised as a place with savage people and uncontrollable wild beasts. Modern-day politics reveals similarly tired stereotypes. The African Union has asked US President Donald Trump to apologise after he reportedly called all of Africa a ‘shithole’. Wakanda, on the other hand, embraces the idea of beasts in the creation of a modern, high-tech country. People in Wakanda wear their natural and cultural heritage on their sleeves, fiercely, with fantastic jewellery, rituals and dances.
A particular mountainous tribe derives its identity from wild mountain gorillas and is led by M’Baku (Winston Duke), an unforgettable character. The tribals are hulking, brave and make whooping calls but, despite their seemingly menacing visage, are vegetarian like the gorillas. Then, there are gigantic rhinos, characterised as dangerous but endearing beasts – both wild yet familiar, a homage perhaps to how contemporary safari-lovers and conservationists feel about African rhinos. This narrative is a sharp rejection of bestiality, and the sole white man witnessing all this is like the token black man in other Hollywood fare. He is agape at the world around him, often tongue-tied, becoming the butt of more than one joke.
The central conceit of the movie is resource use – specifically, what kind of power Wakanda should wield and how it should utilise its resources when the country is forced to consider addressing race-based crime in other parts of the world. Wakanda has historically decided to seal itself off to keep vibranium a secret and to prosper, albeit in isolation. The central dilemma between T’Challa and the antagonist, his cousin Erik (Michael B. Jordan), is on the use of this resource. T’Challa’s method of resource management is geared towards a robust laboratory culture and science and technology while Erik wants to press vibranium into the service of violence.
Described as a “radicalised” black male who has grown up in a rough American neighbourhood, Erik wants to overthrow White Rule in other countries by equipping ‘wardogs’ with vibranium. He’d easily be called a terrorist in most countries, a fact he seems to be aware of – and the movie asks you to take pause on how a revolution should be fought on the possession of great minerals that can also become awesome weapons.
All-powerful resources and the fight for them has been screenplay gold for many fantasy franchises. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) had a brutal, colonising effort to oust tribals for reserves of unobtainium on an alien planet. The X-Men and Wolverine franchises had the unbreakable metal alloy adamantium being used to create soldiers with indestructible body parts.
Some characters choose the path of sustainability and preserving traditional, ecological knowledge, such as the careful use of cultivated herbs that grant power. Yet others, like a parallel to politicians who may use nuclear physics irresponsibly, have no use for tradition or sustainability.
Technology transfers, housing refugees and the thoughtful use of resources, not just to live in the present but also to address historic wrongs, are all consequent debates in Black Panther. These are also important aspects of climate change negotiations ongoing around the world. The movie’s valorisation of a blend of science and nature, and sovereignty through a particular cultural and natural heritage, will appeal to many.
Black Panther triumphs in characterising blackness as a stunning and powerful quality, comparable to how a wilderness enthusiast may feel when she stumbles upon a wild black panther, a creature so dream-like it could almost be mythical. And that rare quality – of a panther that is black – could also be a stand-in for a movie such as this one, as uncommon as they come.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.