Of African Princes and Hidden Treasures
The teaser trailer for Black Panther opens with a chained Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) asking Everett Ross (Martin Freeman): “Tell me what you know about Wakanda.” Ross replies: “It’s a Third World Country. Textiles. Shepherds. Cool Outfits.” After declaring it “all a front,” Klaue begins to tell Ross that Wakanda is the famed El Dorado that explorers looked for in South America, when it was in Africa the entire time. Klaue then goes on to claim that he is the only person (one assumes white man) to have seen it “and made it out alive.” During his monologue, scenes from Wakanda feature a shirtless T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), advanced aircraft taking off from a launch pad, and a costumed Black Panther protecting the countryside. As Klaue breaks out into laughter, T’Challa and Okoye (Danai Gurira) watch the exchange behind a one-way mirror. Klaue’s declaration to the watching pair, “I can see you,” serves to transition to more scenes from Wakanda as the beat drops from Run the Jewels’ “Legend Has It” (2016).
An unseen narrator tells the viewer: “The world is changing. Soon there will be only the conquered . . . and the conquerors.” T’Challa in all his regal glory and superhero badassery is rivaled perhaps only by the Wakandan women—Ayo (Florence Kasumba), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Shuri (Letitia Wright). We also get our first glimpse of the Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). The trailer ends with the narrator, King T’Chaka (John Kani) declaring: “It is hard for a good man to be a king.”
While Black Panther will not hit theaters until 2018, the buzz around the film is palpable. An all-star cast of actors and actresses from the African and Black Diasporas hail from Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mexico (if you count the birthplace of Nyong’o), the United States, Germany, and Great Britain. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) and co-written by Joe Robert Cole (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), the film promises to be action-packed and not focused on white and European characters. Already, memes on social media and the hashtags #Wakanda and #BlackPanther have proliferated. #BlackPantherSoLit captures the enthusiasm of potential black viewers, including some who are willing to give over their coins now to see the movie in 2018. Meanwhile, disgruntled Whites took to Twitter to declare the movie poster “too black” and “too militant,” as well as point out the lack of diversity in a film about fictional Africans. These reverse-racism mongers vowed to boycott the film, while black fans laughed and mocked their “principled” stance, pointing out the absurdity of such positions given #HollywoodSoWhite and yeah, the whiteness of the Marvel franchise.
So, what are we to make of this excitement for a comic-book character from a fictional African country created by two white men—Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby? Black Panther first appeared, not coincidently (despite Lee’s protestations) in 1966, the same year that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. Lee’s Black Panther, however, hailed from Africa not California. Appearing in the Fantastic Four #52, issued July 10, 1966, the four (Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and Thing) travel to Wakanda to . . . No spoilers! Black Panther upset the Marvel comic universe centered on iconic white male superheroes. In 1969, Sam Wilson aka Falcon would later become the first African American superhero under the Marvel label.
In a 2017 interview, Stan Lee stated that the Black Panther is not “the typical way you would write about a black guy. He seems like a regular native in the jungle, but he’s really the head of a nation, which is . . . hidden underground. . . . They are all geniuses, scientific geniuses. And this guy is a scientific genius” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYjPRosKR_A. Refusing to give away more spoilers, Lee does not continue. Despite the popularity of Black Panther, when Sony and Fox began bringing Marvel characters to the big screen, they did not think to adapt Black Panther. Arguably, Hollywood was not willing to gamble on bringing a lead black male character to the screen whose base of operations was in Africa. Storm of X-Men (a character descended from an African American father and a line of African princesses) was part of an ensemble cast, so Fox did not expect Halle Berry to carry the film or franchise. Black Panther on screen would be a whole different matter. The decision to bring this character to film, first in Captain America: Civil War (2016) coincided with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing of an 11-issue series of the Black Panther comic. Presumably, Coates would give the comic legitimacy, “real blackness,” and rescue it from white men’s fantasies.
Black Panther will not be the first film that features a fictional African prince from a fictional African nation to capture the attention of American audiences. The 1937 British cinematic treatment of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines starred African American thespian Paul Robeson as Umbopa, the porter whose bearing and speech indicates that he may be something more. In the work, aside from the location of the lost mines, the biggest secret is Umbopa’s “true” identity—he is Ignosi, the son of the king of the Kukuanas. Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Climbing Up” sounds like a jazzed-up version of an African American work song/spiritual replete with call and response disguised as an echo in the valley as Umbopa and the British travelers climb the “mighty mountain.” After Umbopa reveals himself to the white men and woman in search of the elusive mines, Commander Good remarks “I always thought that fella had a spot of royal blood in him.” Umbopa enlists the help of the white men in defeating his uncle King Twala who obtained the throne with the aid of the witch Gagool.
The Washington Post reviewed the film, remarking: “Notable is the photographic treatment of the rugged African terrain, the faithful detail of the native dances . . . Paul Robeson as Umbopa is an exceptional voice. With true majesty he is ever the king, even when he is caroling a song about you and listening to the echoes. This is undoubtedly the best role that Robeson has fallen heir to in the flickers, and he does it full justice” (August 28, 1937). The Chicago Defender (a black-run newspaper) simply recounted British critiques of Robeson’s songs (August 14, 1937). Overall, Robeson’s portrayal of an African prince who ascends the throne to become king received critical acclaim.
The 1950 Technicolor remake of King Solomon’s Mines, produced by MGM, starred Deborah Kerr as Elizabeth Curtis and Stewart Granger as Allan Quatermain. An African actor, simply billed as Siriaque, plays Umbopa. The trailer for the film hearkens back to the jungle films of the 1920s proclaiming the film to be the “Greatest Adventure Drama of the Ages” unfolding “in the perilous jungles of the Dark Continent.” “Actually filmed in the savage heart of equatorial Africa,” it features the “sacred dance of the Watussi,” Maasai warriors, and animal stampedes. The New York Times distinguished the MGM version from the 1937 film noting that “Metro has brought into the film such a riot of ethnic illustration, natural history and anthropology that a skeptic can go with the safari just for the sights to be seen . . . Among the sights, too, are lovely landscapes, an awesome look around roaring Murchison Falls, exotic tribal dances by fearful warriors and a visit to a village of the strange tribe of Giant Watussis. A battle between two seven-foot nobles, dueling for the tribal throne, has a decidedly staged appearance, but it still has its fascinating points . . . A native Watussis known as Siriaque does well in a generally non-speaking role” (November 10, 1950). The film grossed $15.1 million and won academy awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing in 1951.
Umbopa would be the most popular African prince and king featured in American film until 1988, when Eddie Murphy wrote and starred in Coming to America. While Murphy receives credit for the story, two white men, David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein, wrote the screenplay. John Landis directed the film. Murphy’s portrayal of Prince Akeem who comes to America in search of his queen whom he finds in Queens, New York, is unforgettable. Rightfully, the film has been criticized for its stereotyping of Africans and African cultures, most notably a gratuitous scene of scantily clad African dancers performing a piece (purportedly choreographed by Paula Abdul) that might have appeared on the Cotton Club stage in the 1920s. It is as much mythic as consciously stereotypical and over-the-top. King Jaffe Joffer’s medieval gold bling and lion sash add to the spectacle of imagined African royalty. Disguised as African students, Prince Akeem and Semmi try to hide their origins only to be foiled by the King and Queen of Zamunda (another fictional African kingdom) who travel to Queens to rescue them from the scheming, uncouth, wealth-seeking African Americans. The film was a cult hit because its farcical narrative, which unfolds primarily in Jackson Heights, Queens, was so memorable.
No one had seen Black Panther. But it is fair to say that expectations are that T’Challa will not be the stock African character found in either the 1920s jungle films or numerous versions of King Solomon’s Mines. Nor will he be the indulged Prince Akeem of Coming to America. Instead of white men in search of diamonds in Africa or African men in search of brides/queens in the United States—both narratives framed using the hidden treasure trope—the Black Panther will feature an African king (played by an African American actor) who attempts to stop arms deals and the sale of vibranium, a precious mineral (dare we say hidden treasure) from Wakanda . . . legend has it
Jeannette Eileen Jones is a historian of the United States, with expertise in American cultural and intellectual history, transnational history, and African American Studies. Her research explores the role of race in shaping American cultural and intellectual discourse and production, focusing on the ways in which “race” as a popular and scientific category operated as a potent signifier of difference—cultural, biological, social, and political—in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. She is the author of In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936 (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2010) and is currently working on her next book project, America in Africa: U.S. Empire, Race, and the African Question, 1847-1919.