The mood is festive. Throngs of moviegoers are entering theaters this weekend, and their excitement is palpable. The most enthusiastic theater moviegoers in quite some time, have catapulted Black Panther advance ticket-sales into a realm far beyond the Marvel Universe. Superhero movies are no stranger to the eager audience. The devoted show up in serious cosplay, clogging the halls of theaters hours ahead of show time. This particular audience has outdone itself. Donning their vibrant African prints, and serious all-black ensembles, there is no question what they’ve come to see. Black Panther is as much a celebration as spectacle, and they are dressed for the occasion.
Minutes into the movie, and it becomes obvious. This is not your typical superhero flick. The sleek CGI effects are impressive, albeit expected. Wakanda however, is majestic. Her countrymen all dignified and beautifully-adorned. The plot thrusts forward at a dizzying pace, but it is in the moments that it slows down, that we appreciate the elegance of the film. Look closely. There is an homage to the Tuareg, the Masai, and the Himba people. The detail paid to aesthetic, language, sound, the stunning cast, all serve to elevate it to cinematic art. It may be tempting to leave the theater, captivated by the stunning imagery, titillated by the coolness of it all, satisfied with the overdue positive representation of African-descended people. At its best, film, like clothing, like music, can be tangible proof of the existence of a dynamic culture. African Americans have a particular challenge here. We can wear the garb, and know the meaning of its symbols, so as not to makes it costume. Perform the dance, but also understand the rhythm, so that it’s not merely entertainment. Our challenge is to not linger in the shallow dimensions of iconography without plunging into the depths of the history and cultures that produce it.
One hundred and twenty-one years ago, faithful to the covetous nature of the imperialist, 1200 British soldiers penetrated the empire of Benin and obliterated it. Looted, were the famous bronzes that once decorated the royal palaces. Visitors to The British Museum in London or the Boston Museum of Fine Arts have discovered evidence of this kingdom, hiding in plain sight. The elaborate handiwork of the Edo people, now designated ‘art’, commands a hefty sum in the European hand. Some valued in the millions, if you were to follow the money trail back, you would find yourself in a land where African ingenuity was the norm.
16th Century Benin, where the artisanal knowledge of the chemical and physical compositions of metal was quite sophisticated. Equally impressive, but immovable, were the Walls of Benin, the world’s longest man-made structure. Engineered to safeguard the kingdom, when it stood, it was four times longer than the Great Wall of China.