Johannesburg, South Africa – "Tell me something," demands Ulysses Klaue, a white-arms and South African arms trafficker, in one of Marvel's first "Black Panther" scenes. Do you know Wakanda? "
" Textiles, shepherds, great costumes, "answers Everett Ross, the CIA agent who interrogates him, lightly describing the fictitious African kingdom in the heart of the film:" It's a third world country. " On a recent afternoon at a Johannesburg movie theater, the audience laughed appreciatively: it was a mordant African stereotype, the kind too common in Hollywood, but for once, it did not goad.
That was because this time, everyone those who watched knew it, the joke was on the white guys … In the "Black Panther" universe, after all, Wakanda is secretly the most advanced civilization in the world, a golden city-state that it seems that Star Wars encountered Singapore in the center of Timbuktu
"In South Africa, we have been watching these films all our lives – & # 39; Batman & # 39 ;, & # 39; Superman & # 39 ;, & # 39; Captain America & # 39 ; – and every time the mask comes out he's a white man, "says John Kani, a famous South African actor and theater writer who plays the father of The King of Wakanda." But this time you take off the mask and the hero is me " The hero is all of us in Africa and in the diaspora, it's something extraordinary. "
But if many saw themselves as the heroes of the film, some also saw flashes of themselves in their villain, a man whose struggle for racial justice has many parallels with African history. Still, for the African public, "Black Panther" has inspired a widespread celebration, offering a world that many here have never seen on the big screen before: theirs. The film set new box office records in East and West Africa on its opening weekend, and a week later continues filming for sold-out audiences across the continent.
"It was so unexpected, I can not even begin to describe it," said Nomthandazo Hlanguza, a banker, as he left a Johannesburg movie house earlier this week. "It is exactly the opposite of everything we are told is African"
In fact, the fictional Wakanda, a place that was never colonized and enriched by its mineral resources, feels like a kind of futuristic alt-Africa, a vision of what the continent would be like without European domination (and with the help of a technology from otherworldly superheroes).
"Sometimes we think we have two options to do in Africa," he wrote. Anyang & # 39; Nyong & # 39; o, Kenyan politician and father of the movie star Lupita Nyong & # 39; o, in a newspaper in Nairobi this month. "Option one: we keep our traditions and cultures and we stay behind forever." Option two: we modernize by westernizing ourselves and forgetting our cultural traditions that, by their very nature, we think are trapped in the past The experience of the Wakanda people teaches us what opposite ".
Meanwhile, the film's repeated badent to the languages, fashion, architecture and real-life music of the continent is a fierce celebration of Africa. Wakanda warriors are dressed in traditionally woven Basotho blankets from Lesotho and checkered Maasai from East Africa. Its skyscrapers look like elegant modernist updates of the towers of earth with skewers of Timbuktu. His teenage rocket princess launches South African house music while he plays with his inventions, and the Wakandans talk to each other in isiXhosa, a South African language.
"At the premiere in Johannesburg, the first time you heard my son talking to me, in isiXhosa, the audience exploded," says Mr. Kani, recalling last week's opening here. "At that time it stopped being just a movie, it became something that connected us all"
But if the African public saw themselves in Wakanda and the heroes of the film, the king Challa and her chiseled set of Wakanda warriors and kings, many also saw flashes of their own experience in the Black Panther's nemesis, N & # 39; Jadaka, aka Erik "Killmonger" Stevens.
Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, is the cousin of T & # 39; Challa, who grew up in a corner of Oakland, California. , spoiled by drugs and violence. He returns to Wakanda, determined to use the formidable resources of the kingdom to liberate oppressed blacks from all over the world.
"Where I am from, when blacks started revolutions, they never had the resources to fight against their oppressors," he explains. "That ends today."
In the black-and-white moral universe of the superhero movie, Killmonger is indisputably the bad guy, but for Africans whose recent history is plagued by violent uprisings against the white government, his experience has shades of gray.
"I think he left the audience very much in conflict: he was a hero and a villain at the same time," says Rashieda Witter, art historian and cultural critic in Johannesburg. "Even if they did not agree with their methods, I think a lot of people would agree with their idea that an African country with that kind of resources should be able to use them to raise other countries."
For Kani, meanwhile, Killmonger's presence in the film was a reflection of the choices black communities make every day.
When he first read the script, he says, he thought of South Africa in the years after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Should the country establish courts to punish apartheid villains and send them to jail, many asked ? "But finally we decided that we did not want to do that because we did not want to deliver the baggage of our past to future generations," he says. "In a way, Wakanda had the same option."
But he says that the politics of the film is not as important as the simple fact of its existence. Now, he says, there is irrefutable evidence that an African superhero can be a blockbuster in the United States.
"Some people have told me that this movie is anti-revolutionary," he says. "And I say:" Oh, please, do not think too much, it's a comic book story "# 19659027