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East Africa Meets Hollywood

(The following is a post by Eve M. Ferguson, reference librarian in the African Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Cover of the inaugural issue of “Black Panther,” no. 1 (Jan. 1977). Library of Congress Newspaper and Periodical Reading Room.

Black Panther is the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics. The Library of Congress holds the Marvel Comics series, including “Black Panther,” dating back to his debut appearance in “Fantastic Four” in 1966. When the movie “Black Panther” hit the theaters in February of this year, nobody had anticipated that months later it would still be topping the charts grossing over $1.3 billion worldwide. Based on the Marvel comic character of the same name, director Ryan Coogler did exhaustive research to make the film’s fictional African country, Wakanda, authentic to real African cultures. He also made sure to cast African actors in the film, thrusting some East African superstars further into Hollywood’s spotlight.

The character Black Panther belongs to Marvel Comic’s “Avengers,” a fictional team of superheroes appearing in American comic books that now also include Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, among others. The team made its debut in the first issue of “The Avengers” in September 1963, created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby. Not a member of the original team, Black Panther debuted later as a part of the comic publisher’s series, “The Fantastic Four” in 1966.

King of Wakanda, T’Challa, aka Black Panther, (played in the film by Chadwick Boseman) possesses super powers achieved through the Wakandan traditional ritual of drinking the essence of the heart-shaped herb. To combat his enemies, he also relies on his scientific expertise, rigorous physical training, hand-to-hand combat adeptness, and access to wealth and advanced technology through the precious mineral Vibranium, found exclusively in Wakanda.

Lupita Nyong’o who plays Nakia, King T’Challa’s right hand operative, already had an Oscar under her belt for her role as Patsey in the 2012 film “12 Years a Slave.” (BookFilm) The film was based on the narrative of the same name by Solomon Northrup, the true account of the free man of color who was captured and enslaved on a plantation in Louisiana. She was the first African woman to win an Oscar at the 2013 awards.

But, unbeknownst to many, the actor of Kenyan heritage (though born in Mexico), started her career making films. In 2009, after graduating with a degree in film and theater arts from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Nyong’o, the daughter of Kenyan academic/politician Peter Anyang Nyong’o, returned to the country to star in a Kenyan HIV/AIDS awareness television production, “Shuga.” Both of her parents are members of the Luo of western Kenya, the same ethnic group to which Barak Obama Sr., father of former President Barack H. Obama belonged.

The previous year she wrote, produced and directed the documentary, “In My Genes,” about the discriminatory treatment of albino people in the East African country. It played at several film festivals ultimately winning first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival. The Library of Congress acquired the film, distributed by Third World Newsreel. Nyong’o also directed the music video, “The Little Things You Do,” by Kenyan singer Wahu, featuring Bobi Wine, a Ugandan politician and actor. The video was nominated for “Best Video” at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2009.

In 2016, Nyong’o was cast as Nakku Harriet, the mother of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (played in the Disney film by Ugandan actress Madina Nalwanga in her debut role) in “Queen of Katwe,” based on a true story by Tim Crothers, “Queen of Katwe: a story of life, chess, and one extraordinary girl’s dream of becoming a grandmaster.” (Book, Soundtrack)

The film version of “Queen of Katwe” was directed by filmmaker Mira Nair, who is the wife of Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani. She also produced and directed the 1991 film “Mississippi Masala,” the story of an Indian family displaced from Uganda under Idi Amin, president of Uganda from 1971-9. Nair’s Maisha Film Lab is located in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, where she and Mamdani live when not teaching at Columbia University in New York.

Nyong’o is joined in the cast of “Black Panther” by another actor of East African heritage that took Hollywood by storm in 2017’s “Get Out.” Daniel Kaluuya, who played the lead character Chris Washington in Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film, was born in Great Britain but his roots are from Uganda, the land-locked nation bordering Kenya to the north. Born to Ugandan immigrants, Kaluuya wrote his first play at age 9, and is known in Great Britain for his stage and television roles. But his breakthrough role in “Get Out” introduced him to American audiences before he was cast in “Black Panther” as W’Kabi, the husband of General Okoye, commander of the Dora Milaje, a female militia whose mission was to protect King T’Challa in Wakanda.

The role of Okoye went to Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright, Danai Gurira. Gurira’s Tony Award-winning Broadway play, “Eclipsed,” gave Lupita Nyong’o her first Obie award for theater. The critically acclaimed play featured an all-Black, all-female cast and creative team, set within the chaos of Liberia’s second civil war.

In making “Black Panther,” Coogler wanted to emphasize authentic African culture through language and costumes. The actors were taught to speak Xhosa, in which they deliver some of their lines when talking among the other citizens of the fictional African country Wakanda. Xhosa is one of the official languages of South Africa. In fact, some of the aerial scenery in the film of rural Wakanda was shot in Uganda.

The costumes, designed by legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter, are supposed to represent an amalgam of African traditional clothing, like those depicted in the prints of writer and explorer Baron de Charles Martrin-Donos (1858-1904). The French artist captured the regalia of African kings (and other more common Africans) in the late 19th century in a series of prints in the monograph “Les Belges dan l’Afrique centrale: voyages, aventures et découvertes d’après les documents et journaux des explorateurs.”

Legendary Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter undertook extensive research of historical and traditional African wear to create the costumes for the residents of the fictional African country, Wakanda. These 19th century prints by Baron de Charles Martrin-Donos captured the regalia of African kings and chiefs in this series included in his 1886 book “Les Belges dan l’Afrique centrale: voyages, aventures et découvertes d’après les documents et journaux des explorateurs.” Ganchu Roi Bateke. This print depicts a king of the Teke (or Bateke) people of the lower Congo basin. Carter’s costuming drew inspiration from traditional wear, body painting and accessories, such as the ceremonial spear, as seen in this print by Matrin-Donos. Library of Congress Collections.

The Bayanzi people of Congo (formerly Zaire) traditionally wore elaborate multi-part regalia such as this chief wearing a cape, headpiece, ornamentation and symbolic facial and body paint. “Les Belges dans l’Afrique centrale; voyages, aventures et découvertes d’après les documents et journaux des explorateurs.” Bruxelles, P. Maes, 1886. Library of Congress Collections.

This image depicting the “King of Tchoumbiri” may have influenced the costumes of Wakandan people. The costume designer paid particular attention to creating authentic looking headpieces, weaponry and accessories. “Les Belges dans l’Afrique centrale; voyages, aventures et découvertes d’après les documents et journaux des explorateurs.” Bruxelles, P. Maes, 1886. Library of Congress Collections.

Maasai beadwork and hairstyles were reconfigured and replicated in the costumes of the citizens of Wakanda in Black Panther. This image, titled “Cannibale” may have referred to a common practice of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, who drink the blood of a cow mixed with milk for sustenance. “Les Belges dans l’Afrique centrale; voyages, aventures et découvertes d’après les documents et journaux des explorateurs.” Bruxelles, P. Maes, 1886. Library of Congress Collections.

The Library’s holdings of “Black Panther” runs from 1977 year to present. Click here to view the Library of Congress’ holdings of “Black Panther.” For reference questions about the Marvel Comics collections, contact the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. For questions concerning this blog, contact the African Section of the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room.

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