On Sunday night, I sat in a crowded room in Canal Olympia Téranga, the only movie theater in Dakar, Senegal, that was showing Black Panther.
With all the seats around me occupied, I waited to see what the “black people” in the movie would look like, what they would sound like. Would they use that generic African accent overused in Hollywood films? I looked to my left and right and wondered if the folks next to me were wondering the same things.
How would this superhero action flick “use” the African characters?
Africa was not untouched by the Black Panther hype. It blew across over here, too, with the winds stronger in some places, like in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, where people were paying close attention to actors of South and East African descent—John Kani, Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Florence Kasumba and Danai Gurira.
Many of us had seen the trailers featuring the stunning wardrobe and the spectacular special effects. We were curious to see this Dora Milaje, the all-female fighter guard assigned to protect the king and royal family. Many of us already knew that the Dora Milaje looked a lot like the Ahosi of Dahomey, aka the Dahomey “Amazons,” an all-female military guard formed in the late 17th century by King Wegbaja from the kingdom of Dahomey, and expanded by his son, King Agaja. We knew about the stellar cast and the mighty $200 million production budget, the most expensive movie directed by a black director with a mostly black cast.
We knew these things, but still, what would the Africans, the black people, the Wakandans, look like? Many of us have grown tired of being sick and tired of how we are presented in Hollywood movies because the depictions often give the impression that Africans are backward. What would Wakanda look like?
Ugandan Lydia Namubiru, who saw the film in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, said she went in with low expectations.
“My first thought was that they are going to patronize us with stereotypes,” she told The Root. “Even going in, I was skeptical.”
Perhaps it was a combination of measured curiosity and genuine excitement to see what could be something new in Hollywood storytelling about black people that partly drove untold numbers of people across Africa to cinemas over the past few days to catch the premiere.
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the five daily screenings have been sold out at the sole theater showing the film. At the Accra Mall in Ghana, drummers came in beating out rhythms that heightened the crowd’s enthusiasm. In Lagos, my fellow Nigerians were decked to the nines in gorgeous wax prints and chunky jewelry. In Kampala, attendants graced a cocktail hour before the premiere at the Acacia Mall.
Going out to the movies this time was like no other. This was a cultural occasion that was memorialized with selfies and social media posts.
Senegal-based Kenyan native and writer Ciku Kimeria dressed carefully in a chic, all-black assemble and wrapped her long locks in bantu knots and adorned her neck with a colorful southern-African-inspired choker.
“There was no way I was going to Wakanda just looking regular. I know black people and this is Senegal. I knew people were going to dress up,” Kimeria told The Root.
I joined friends and posed in front of the Black Panther poster, but I didn’t know what would await me when I watched the film.
So when the lights in the cinema hall dimmed, the silence took over the room and the screen lit up to a wide shot zooming in on massive cone-shaped buildings inspired by Sudano-Sahelian architecture; I knew something was happening. And I held my breath in wonder.
“I almost got up to clap … the hype is all worth it!” Kimeria said.
She, too, was floored when she saw the architecture because it reminded her of a mosque building she had seen on a visit to the West African nation of Burkina Faso.
For many Africans, the film brought to the big screen a reality that they see every day—the Basotho blankets the warriors used as a protective shield, the queen’s Zulu hat, the ochre-dyed locks of the Himba, the flowing fabrics of the Wolof. It was the sheer Pan-Africanism of it all that astounded me. The cinematic display of the diversity of Africanness was beautiful.
For some viewers, the film also represented a hope nurtured in the heart of what Africa could be. Ugandan sports radio journalist Patrick Kanyamozi told The Root that watching the film the night it premiered in Uganda made him feel that he was part of history in the making.
“What we can learn from this film is that Africa has always had potential—the gold, the diamonds and everything. It’s only we were not able to work on that in the years that went by, but still, Africans individually can still pursue their dreams,” Kanyamozi said.
“We were humanized, and that matters,” said 25-year-old Johannesburg-based South African journalist and filmmaker Sumeya Gasa. She said the whole experience was overwhelming and she is still trying to process it. “It’s feels so good, too good.”
But that “too good” feeling of Wakanda and what it could represent for black people in Africa and the Diaspora is what some people are trying to capture in their everyday lives. R.J. Mahdi is an Atlanta native who moved to Senegal years ago. He says that as an African American, he understood the character of the villainous N’Jadaka, aka Killmonger.
“I think Killmonger’s character was an accurate depiction of the majority of black Americans feeling in one way or another. It was obviously symbolic, him being displaced from Wakanda. In retrospect, the majority of African Americans do feel that we have been abandoned in the world, and that’s a tough feeling,” Mahdi told The Root.
“We hear it all the time. African Americans say, ‘Why didn’t Africans come and fight for us in the civil rights movement or in the years of slavery?’ I think that whenever you can bridge that gap and find a common ground, which was something that can happen, because even in the movie, it took them to find it out and learn each other’s point of view to soften their heart towards each other in the end.”
Even Lydia Namubiru, the skeptical one, gave a positive review of the movie. She said she appreciated that it touched on the theme of the relationship between African Americans and Africans.
“The movie represented Africans’ reaction to that radical Pan-Africanism that Killmonger had as just violence and just madness, as something crazy. I do feel like Killmonger being killed without properly understanding him was a pretty accurate depiction of how we react to radical Pan-Africanism,” she told The Root.
She said she hopes the film will spark deeper conversations among Africans on how to do a better job of understanding black people in the Diaspora, particularly African Americans.
In the end, many viewers felt that the “African” characters were humanized and nuanced, and there is a belief that this feeling of hope will be sustained and used as inspiration to channel the advancement of Africa. And for someone like me, who grew up being called “African booty scratcher” and watching Africans as stock characters, I couldn’t help shedding a tear at the end of the film, and I know that I was not the only one.