Black Panther, Representation and Activism

As many others, Black Panther made me feel excited about finally seeing some fair representation on the cinema screen. The important role and power of black women in the piece tickled the intersectional feminist in me, so I couldn’t help but think: What does this mean for African activism and development on the continent?

If you haven’t seen the movie, have a look at this trailer before continuing reading:

Previously, I wrote about the complexity of a sub-Saharan Spring. In this post I will try to look closer at other sources that can influence social movement and change on the continent. Black Panther is creating a lot of noise by its fans and there are celebrations world-wide of its representation and feminist focus – something very unusual for the super hero genre.

It’s more than a movie, it’s a common movement”, says Opeyemi Ajayi, a VP of Genesis Cinemas in Nigeria at the very end in this discussion on Aljazeera Stream:

Most analyses and reviews related to the Black Panther film has a focus on the African-American movements which are affected by its success. There are already activists starting hashtags: check out . Not very surprising though, as African-American movements are already well established (Black lives matter, Movement for Black lives etc).

Also read: Why wonder woman is a masterpiece of subversive feminism

Cinema4Development – Can that be a real thing?

The fact that a fiction entertainment film like Black Panther causes so much attention proves the enormous need for representation. The film challenges the traditional donor-receiver relationship we see in international development.

© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios
Capital city of Wakanda in the film Black Panther

Africa, for once, is not portrayed as this suffering continent filled with conflict, starvation and poverty. The imagined country Wakanda is a high-tech joint rule by several tribes, illustrating strong pan-Africanism.

Normally in communicating development, success stories from reality tend to be overshadowed by sad and tragic ones (which of course are important too). Perhaps fiction is the next step after story telling for the development industry.

Also read: Black Panther: loved by the world, hated by trolls

Looking closer at the film

Mariama Sow and Amadou Sy at Brookings are hopeful that the film “can pave the way for an increased number of movies painting Africa in a positive light”. Meanwhile, Khanya Khondlo Mtshali, a freelance writer at The Guardian, is sceptical about what this film actually can do for grassroot activisms and social movements: “If we behave as though purchasing a ticket to see a film produced by Disney is a form of resistance, we fail to distinguish between black art that touches on revolutionary themes, and the actual work required for revolution itself.”

What most reviews have in common though, is the unique feminist portrayal of black women and the representation of the African continent in the Hollywood film landscape. It also introduces Afrofuturistic fantasy to the mainstream audience as well as a costume wear inspired by African culture.

© 2017 - Disney/Marvel Studios
Still photo from the film Black Panther: Lupita Nyong’o and Chadwick Boseman

Mediatization of Society

Mediatization is an interesting theory. If you come from a communication academic background or even as a journalist, you might have heard of it before. In summary, Mediatization means that our society and every day life is wrapped up in different media sphere’s such as social media, apps and hashtags. This affects how reality is socially constructed and can both be over and underestimated.

Mediatization can nowadays be found in almost every corner of reality – especially in social movements (like digital activism). This new form of processes is called deep mediatization and has two meanings: the social world relies on the technologies behind communication media (Such as ICT) and the social constructions themselves are built on digital processes (such as e-services by governments etc).

The Networked Collective and Imagined Identities

In times of deep mediatization, the making of a film like Black Panther both reveals inequalities in representation and challenges them. But the internet is not an equal sphere itself. Remember, it only mirrors the social world we created. This is why we mostly hear what the film means for the African-American audience, not so much for the African continent.

However, the fanfare of Black Panther is a networked media collective which stretches across continents. It is larger than a pan-African movement, as it joins African-American issues with African history and representation.

This networked collective shares the characteristics of a contemporary social movement: the collective identity is the core, which is joint by digital tools, as it ignores rules of space (as in geographically).

Also read: How Black Panther has spurred community and activism across the globe and Disney celebrates Black Panther by giving $1m to charity

The fruit of an African-American movement

I can’t help but to think – is the Black Panther film a fruit of the African-American movement’s collective voice? The film itself though, is an African representation, not so much an African-American (although it does have those elements as side stories). Is this what happens when movements go mainstream?

The film is likely to enhance the already established African-American movements, less likely to spark new movements for social change on the African continent. Why? Well, it does not really call for any action or challenge for change. I do think Black Panther is important when it comes to representation and the self-reflection of the younger population on the African continent as well amongst African-Americans.

There is also an interest of making money out of this film and creating an illusion of a movement adds to that. As Jesse Holland, the writer of the film, says himself in the clip above: “This is not about trying to set to change social infrastructures… It is more about our time to shine”.

References for this text:

Hepp, A., Breiter, A., Hasebrink, U. (eds.) 2018: Communicative Figurations: Transforming Communications in Times of Deep Mediatization. London: Palgrave.

Poell, T.; van Dijck, J. 2018. Social Media and new protest movements, in: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (eds.): SAGE Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage.

12 Comments

  1. Nicole

    ”The future is female; the future is African” (Mary-Jean Nleya, Aljazeera )
    Thanks AA for the nuanced look at this film and how it might influence activism in Africa. This is empowering stuff to be celebrated, in terms of how it can influence self concepts of African youth as you point out, challenge stereotypes and where it could lead.
    Great to see Africa represented at last by Hollywood in such affirmative storytelling, with female representation being diverse, powerful and central to this film. This sits alongside emergence of sci-fi stories challenging ideas of Africa – have you seen the recent TedTalk by Nnedi Okorafor, ‘Sci-fi stories that imagine a future Africa?
    Perhaps fiction – in cinema and novels – is the future link for communicating development, offering fresh and positive narratives to moderate the usual visions of Africa.

    1. A A

      Thank you for the Ted Talk tip, Nicloe! Will have a look at it.

      I’m somehow balancing between believing that a film like Black Panther is an effort for some kind of development (in representation) of the African continent or it is the fruit of a different approach in how the continent has been represented lately. Are NGO’s and other actors finally leaving the victim-based comdev approaches behind?

      What I am certain of though is that this movie has an importance to it and is a milestone and hopefully a trendsetter for the industry.

  2. Dina Cereja

    I think films are very useful for communication development as they provide spaces for new ideas and open up opportunities for discussing development and representation. Especially with films like “Black Panther” that are able to reach such wide audiences.
    On a TV show I have seen recently black Afro-American people were asked what they felt about the movie and their messages of empowerment. One mother referred how important it was for her kid to have grown into a world with Barak Obama as president and a black super hero movie, other stated how important representation was, especially for younger communities, as it gave kids hope and another one referred how important it was in showing there are possibilities for black people.
    This shows as well how powerful storytelling is important in connecting emotionally with people.
    I completely agree is great to see Africa represented in such a positive light and I find it really important that we open up space in popular culture to increase the diversity of voices.

    1. A A

      Yes, and I love the fact that this brings the development discsussion to the mainstream room, not only the development bubble which normally dominates these topics. It allows inputs from people with other backgrounds, because the development bubble is very homogeneous (white European/American middle class, me included).

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  4. What an interesting article and reflection on Black Panther! I have to admit that it was an easy pick for me to read because – like you – I’ve been a fan of the move the instant I watched it. Having lived in South Africa for almost four years, the movie truly felt Southern African to me – not just one of those movies trying to portray Africa as some clichéd Western trope, but truly imagining it from an African perspective.

    After watching the movie, I was contemplating for a while whether it was sending a problematic signal: namely that Africa needs some technological miracle country such as Wakanda to overcome the challenges many of the countries on the continent are facing. But then I realised that I was looking at it from the wrong perspective: Black Panther is not about giving prescriptions as to what Africa needs ‘to develop’. The beauty of the film lies in its different way of representing Africa, and in the way that it promotes a different imagination of Africa. Therefore I fully agree with the last point that you’re making that Black Panther is also about the self-reflection of the younger population on the African continent.

    1. A A

      Thank for your thoughts Daniel. I’m just gonna think out loud here…

      Since you lived in SA for 4 years, do you also feel that this movie finally represents the talents, ambitions and competences which are already there on the continent? Because I’ve been reflecting on how unrepresented this part of Africa is by the west/global north and how the discussion mostly focuses on the poverty, challenges and corruption (which all are important to discuss, but only represents one side of reality).

      I feel like the mainstream media (BBC, Al Jazeera) sometimes are better at this kind of representation than the NGOs, which also has a fundraising purpose of course. Does fundraising only work by using a victim-based angle?

  5. Patricia

    Hi AA, had to watch the film first before being able to comment! Your blog is really interesting. Like others have mentioned, the film has power because of its positive representation of Africa, (through Wakanda) and strong female characters. But the point about equating purchasing a ticket with activism, similar to clicking ‘like’ on social media – I think is important. Those acts on their own don’t really mean much (apart from pushing the film towards breaking box office records). What I do think is interesting, is how grassroots organisations have gone on site and used the popularity of the film to get young people to register to vote. Whether they then go on to exercise that right (and perhaps make a difference in political spheres) is another question….

    1. A A

      Hi Patricia and thank you for your comment! This was my biggest hesitance in writing this article. It is a Disney production with a box office interest which must not be forgotten, but at the same time, this film has meant so much for me and others around me that I couldn’t resist looking closer into it. Perhaps this is a sad reality or a breakthrough (bare in mind I have a very Swedish perspective on capitalism), but this money driven production has actually made an impact on the whole debate on representation. Will be interesting, as you mention, to follow what happens in the aftermaths and if it actually have had some long term offline impact.

  6. Yahneake

    Hi Annelie,

    I enjoyed reading this article! Like you, I was excited to see fair representation in cinema that has been woefully lacking. Having watched the film, I am quite happy with the way in which Africa and women in general were portrayed. As you said in the article, sad and tragic stories from the African continent are important too but there is more to Africa than tragedy. The people are resilient and have success stories of their own. Like the film suggested, Africa and Africans have much to contribute to the world. Regarding representation, I’m extremely happy with how the women were portrayed in their natural beauty. This will go a long way to help young black girls to embrace themselves in their natural state and not aspire to the European standard of beauty. The film does make me contemplate what an uncolonized Africa would’ve looked like… All in all, the success of the film suggests that people of African descent were ecstatic to finally be represented in a positive light… Thankfully it was not another slavery movie…

    1. A A

      Hi Yahneake! Yes, it was so refreshing to finally see another representation of the African continent. Thanks to the research I’ve done for this post and also thanks to tips from the discussion afterwards here, I’ve discovered a new literature genre – Afrofuturism – which I honestly barely heard of before. Another unrepresentated area that deserves way more attention that it gets (from myself included).

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