As expected, Black Panther has broken records and excited American audiences. In four weeks, it has made over US$1.1bil (RM4.3bil) at the box office, with plenty of acclaim including this tweet from Michelle Obama: “Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen.”
I didn’t see much of that enthusiasm in Malaysia. Many of those I talked to didn't understand why the film resonated so strongly with American audiences. To us, it’s just an action movie that just happens to have black actors. The truth is, Black Panther is a culturally specific film when it comes to how folks perceive it.
For example, moviegoers in China were similarly underwhelmed – and even less politically correct than Malaysians – with one reviewer noting that “Black Panther is black, all the major characters are black, a lot of scenes are black, the car-chasing scene is black – the blackness has really made me drowsy”.
But the reaction from the US – specifically, African-American audiences – seem to be genuine. I talked to a friend who lives here and his teenage daughter who lives in New York City, and they both said that Black Panther was a powerful movie that spoke to them.
The daughter said that most movies with a strong black cast talk directly to their situation – their plight, really – in American history and culture. Films like 12 Years A Slave (2013) or even Get Out (2017), both Oscar winners, come to mind.
Black Panther isn’t about deconstructing the problems of black America. It's a celebration of where they come from. My friend assures me that there were plenty of references that weren't obvious. For example, the presence of the all-female royal bodyguards spoke to him about the role of women in the black household.
You may ascribe that particular detail to his personal experience, but director Ryan Coogler definitely weaved intentional details into the film. For example, the colours of the clothes for the three main characters – red, green and black – was an effort to link to the colours of the Pan-African flag.
Coogler wanted to bridge that gap between African-Americans and Africans in Africa.
“One of the things that sometimes comes with being (of African descent) is being made to be ashamed of being African and ashamed that your people live in these beautiful huts and ashamed that some of your people are running around with no shoes on and that when the music plays, we dance like no one’s watching,” Ryan Coogler said. “But that ... is beautiful and we can be proud of it.”
The film also poses the question of how we should face the world. From a position of strength, to conquer, to bend people to your will? Or to reach out to help and achieve much more than we could alone? It’s like the stances of human rights activist Malcolm X against civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
Black Panther works as a movie about African-Americans not just because it speaks directly to the issues in America, but because it says look at what your heritage can blossom into and take cognisance of its potential. In fact, the Africa portrayed in the fictional land of Wakanda is an Africa of the future, fusing technological innovation with long-standing cultural touchstones of fashion and art.
At this point, the obvious question is, what is the Malaysian equivalent that conveys this experience? What movie shows us our potential or inspires us to be better as Malaysians?
One obvious choice is Ola Bola (2016). Based on the true story of how Malaysia's football team qualified for the 1980 Olympics, it was a feel-good film that encultured a spirit of patriotism. (Malaysia ultimately skipped the Games because of a US-led boycott against the Soviet Union over its invasion of Afghanistan.)
Another possibility is the historic film Hati Malaya (2007) which charts the nation’s road to independence. What these movies have in common is that they celebrate the best of what we have achieved.
What I think is harder to find is a film that shows us the best of what we can be. What is the Malaysia we hope to become?
If Black Panther showcases an African nation that leads the world technologically, what does the equivalent in Malaysia look like? I think we would laugh a little at the idea – Malaysians are quick to tear down delusions of grandeur.
But this same cynicism at one time was what greeted the idea of a Malaysian astronaut in space. Or Malaysia having (for a while) the world’s tallest building. Or that we could somehow function on our own as an independent country without the British to look after us.
I understand the need to confront what is wrong with our country. But that should be tempered with a vision of ambition. If one role of art is to understand ourselves better, then the other side of the coin should be to inspire us to greater heights.
Indeed, it should inspire the hero in all of us.