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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Director, Ryan Coogler

(Marvel Studios, 2022)

Review by Gabriel Gbadamosi


The screening at the Peckhamplex cinema in south London (all seats £4.99) of the first Black Panther movie (2018) starring Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa – Black Panther protector of the hidden, immensely powerful and would-be peaceful African wonderland of Wakanda, made invincible by its technological mastery of the not-for-sale mineral resource vibranium – felt like a breakthrough for black people everywhere. From Hollywood to Peckham, the black imaginary mattered; the exploitative subjection of African peoples and resources to Western manipulation could be rolled back. We could overcome our lust for revenge and usher in an era of world peace based on moral, spiritual and technological advancement. And then Chadwick Boseman died – after an astonishing final performance as Levee Green alongside Viola Davis’ powerful Ma Rainey in the film of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), in which he is both visibly ill and burning his talent brightly to the last embers of protest at America’s racist exploitation of black creativity.

The sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), opens with a moving tribute to Boseman as the late King T’Challa. We may never see his like again. Peckham was subdued, but still hopeful that Hollywood (or, more specifically, the Disney Marvel franchise) had found its stride and could make imaginative progress in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Led by a cast of Letitia Wright as the scientist Princess Shuri and Angela Bassett as a stately Queen Ramonda, with our very own Michaela Coel playing her irascible self as the queer warrior woman Aneka, Wakanda was revived as a space in which the Black Panther could be reborn as a woman. Wakanda Forever, along with another strong Viola Davis performance in The Woman King (2022) – as a warrior general in the historical West African kingdom of Dahomey – marks an emergence of strong roles for black women in American cinema with a focus on an African American re-imagining of Africa (albeit of the noble warrior, when-we-were-kings-and-queens variety as a counterweight to the insult of Euro-American slavery).

To describe the next step taken by Wakanda Forever is to suffer a terrible crisis of doubt and risk. But it’s really interesting. We all know that the place the huge – and, as it turns out, vibranium-bearing – meteorite fell was the Yucatán peninsula in present day Mexico. What we didn’t know was that this would give rise to a second vibranium-based civilisation, the underwater city of Talokan, inhabited by water-breathing refugees from the violent depredations of European conquest, now turned blue about the gills – the shade  of Maya blue once used to paint the bodies of Mayan and Aztec sacrificial victims.

This is where Peckham comes in. As well as an African and Caribbean presence, we have a strong Latin American community. Mesoamerican Talokan, portrayed as bloodthirsty in its own defence, in order to keep hidden from further conquest, is set on a collision course with strong and peace-loving African Wakanda. I could feel the Latinx and the black audience being split. The proposition in the film is that these two cultural groups have different interests and conflicting responses to the consequences of European conquest and colonisation – a conflict only frozen and not completely resolved in the film.

To go with this scenario you’d have to believe that the sacrifice cultures of the pre-Columbian era were just as bloodthirsty as those who massacred them, the conquistadors, painted them to be – and so are their Talokan descendants. And then not notice that this conflict resembles the internal split between black power militants and non-violent protestors in the American civil rights movement. As you can imagine, I just don’t believe it. And anyway hope this has been a misstep and Wakanda Forever is wrong in its imagining of a clash of civilisations.