There were so many things that captured my attention as I sat and watched the ‘Black Panther’ movie from the Marvel series. Firstly, the most captivating thing about the movie was the soundtrack, curated by Kendrick Lamar. Then came the strong African women warriors who guarded the kingdom and treated their duty to be above their own lives. The portrayal of women as on par with the men in the movie was phenomenal, as this is a rare sight on television and on-screen these days. Moreover, this is done effortlessly in the movie. Then came the rare sight of an African making fun of the “white boy”. This was the one movie that will go down in the history as the first major box-office hit movie that portrays the Africans as the superior and advanced race compared to the rest of the humanity. This too was done effortlessly and without sounding too proud.
After having enjoyed the movie-watching experience thoroughly, I felt the reality sink in my mind. The West has done it again. The process of appropriation is hard to notice at first. But once understood, it will become clear why this is bad.
Cultural appropriation is the process of taking the elements of a culture that does not belong to you, eliminating all the indigestible bits, adding on digestible bits from your own culture, and then calling it your own ‘interpretation’. It is a simple case of misrepresenting a culture to make it look palatable to the culture that you come from. The West has been doing it for many years now. They took our Yoga, they removed the indigestible parts such as the ‘yamas and niyamas’ (dharma values to be followed before mastering yoga asanas) so that it becomes palatable to the Western community, and then adding on some digestible parts, for example beer, and then calling it “Beer Yoga”. They took our meditation methods and called it spirituality, stress management techniques, etc. The list goes on.
In ‘Black Panther’, the African community has been subjected to the same cultural appropriation by the Western media. Sure, I might be overthinking this as it is just a movie. But cultural appropriation is not always a good thing. Imagine how a Kenyan or a Nigerian would feel when he or she watches this movie. Considering the current position of many African countries, the West has sold them an utopian dream of the potential of African countries through Wakanda, which has never gone through colonisation under the British or the French. The directors and story writers of the Marvel comics and this movie have presented an outsider’s version of what the African culture is all about, be it the rituals, the ancestral worship, etc. Only one South African musician was featured in this movie’s soundtrack, Babes Wodumo, and the movie makers failed to take up this opportunity to highlight the native African talents to the world. To top it all, there was a ‘Black Panther’ premiere held in Los Angeles, South Korea, London, but not anywhere in Africa, apart from a small screening event in Kenya. Imagine a movie that glorifies and celebrates the African heritage, and yet no premier was held in Africa itself.
Have you guys ever wondered what a movie based on our Hindu epics would look like if the West were to produce it? Would the Indian film industry ever produce movies that show Indians in the superior and dominant position over the “white boy”? These are just some questions for you to ponder.
Meanwhile the producers of the ‘Black Panther’ movie in India have muted one word from the movie and it is “Hanuman”. One of the characters in the movie, M’baku from the Jabari tribe, says “Glory to Hanuman”. Now, this Hanuman is not the same Hanuman from the Ramayana epic. The name, again, has been appropriated by the writers of the Marvel comic series for Black Panther. According to the Marvel storyline, M’baku belongs to the tribe that worships the Great White Ape as opposed to the tribes that worship the Black Panther. It is a fictional God and bears no resemblance to the Indian deity, Sri Hanuman. While initially I felt ecstatic as I heard a character from an English box-office-hit movie utter the word “Hanuman”, my enthusiasm was quelled as soon as I learned that it was just an appropriated word. Therefore, let us not jump into conclusions on accounts of “intolerance”. Let us respect the decision of the producers to mute this word, no matter what their reasons were.