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Who is the Black Panther?

SUPERHERO: Black Panther (Photo credit: Marvel)

NEW YORK- based marketing executive Frederick Joseph opened a GoFundMe page aimed specifically at providing 300 children from under-privileged households in the city’s Harlem neighbourhood with the opportunity to visit the cinema to see much-heralded Marvel/Disney superhero movie Black Panther.

The excitement surrounding the release of this film is almost unprecedented; many claim that director Ryan Coogler’s tale of the super-powered king of an ultra-modern African nation – which had never been colonised being feted and honoured in the United States and Western Europe – provided the defining stamp of the imaginative genius of Panther co-creators Stan Lee
and Jack Kirby.

Lee himself has bombastically claimed that T’Challa stands among the most compelling characters he has ever crafted, and has stated that he anticipates the release of the forthcoming movie beyond any previous interpretation of his celebrated Marvel Comics Universe, which include the likes of SpiderMan, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Avengers.

High praise indeed, but one might question how much of the T’Challa character actually sprung directly from the doubtless fertile creativity of Kirby and Lee, as opposed to being based on incidents or circumstances which took place in the real world?

Throughout the incarnations of the T’Challa character promulgated by writers who succeeded Lee, such as Don McGregor, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and, most recently, TaNehesi Coates, there has been consistent metamorphosis to reflect the modes of the successive decades, but the essential stoical nature of T’Challa’s per- sonality has remained consistent.

Chadwick Boesman, the actor appointed by Coogler to play the greatly coveted lead role, cites Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Patrice Lumumba among his influences for his portrayal and T’Challa is cited by several afficianados, such as movie analyst Andrew Muhammed (aka The Investigator) as being based on a plethora of celebrities, rang-ng from Sydney Poitier to Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs.

INSPIRATION

Thus far, however, few have made the most obvious comparison. Given the Wakanda nation’s isolation and the feline symbology embraced by its monarchy, it should not have been too large a leap to connect T’Challa, the latest in a long line of regents claiming the title of Black Panther to the King of Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, namely His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

When the legend of king Prester John was identified as having its roots within the mysterious kingdom of Abyssinia in the 13th century, the cast was set for Europeans to acknowledge that the
most of Christian nations and that continuing to overlook its existence could only lead to the detriment of their erudition.

Expedition followed expedition, until European curiosity eventually became malevolent; the exchanges with this nation, shrouded by a mountainous terrain and boasting its own ancient and unfiltered version of The Bible (as well as several thriving Muslim communities and a leg- endary nation of Africans) grew more precarious as the estimation of the value of the treasures that could be looted seemed to send Arab and European free-booters delirious.


STAR POWER: Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan in the Black Panther movie

During the 16th century, successive attempts were made by Arab insurgents and the Portuguese (who managed to convert an Ethiopian King to the Catholicism, leading to his deposition). During 1867, Robert Napier led an invading force against unpopular King Tewodros II, to liberate a cadre of imprisoned British missionaries.

Following the accomplishment of their task against Tewodros’ depleted militia, the disgraced monarch committed suicide. Napier and his hordes looted Te wodros’ Magdala castle, acquiring the bounty (including Captain Tristram Speedy’s kidnapping of Tewodros’ widowed Empress Tiruwok and his orphaned seven-year-old son, Prince Alemayehu), which made the family fortunes for Napier and several of his entourage.

By 1895 Italian commander- in-chief Oreste Baratiere led an invading force of Italian troops bolstered by Somalis under their dominion, but were routed in a series of conflicts culminating in the March 1, 1896 Battle of Ad- owa, arguably one of the most spectacular international conflicts of all time.

Stan Lee is quoted stating that he read widely and based his fantastic array of Marvel universe characters on personalities he might only have heard of and phenomena and incidents he might only have been vaguely familiar with.

Case in point: “I knew nothing about gamma radiation or what it might do to the human body but I thought, ‘If not, why not?’ and that’s how we came up with The Hulk’.” Therefore, it may not have been lost on him that the Ethiopian monarch of the 19th Century era, King Menelik II (King of Kings, Conquering Lion, etc) had a more than able lieutenant in his queen Taytu Betel, who led an almost exclusive battalion of female combatants who fought Baratiere’s next-in-command, Major Guiseppe Arimondi, to a standstill at Meqele during a siege from January 6-21, 1896 immediately prior to the rout which took place at Adowa.


BEAUTY: Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira in Black Panther

Fast forward to the reign of Haile Selassie I, the next King of Kings, who enjoyed a spectacular 1930 coronation ceremony attended by a swathe of the world’s most prominent statesmen (including Duke of York, Prince Ber- tie, the future George VI) but was forced into exile by 1935 by the rapacious Italian horde, blessed by Pope Pius XI at the behest of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, using outlawed mustard gas to bring the previously never colonised Ethiopia to her knees.

The forces of fascism and intolerance were further enboldened when Selassie I’s prophetic and failed appeal to the League of Nations in 1936 fell on deaf ears. Almost as a foreshadow to the imaginary T’Challa’s quest for allies which led him to the USA to enlist first, The Fantastic Four (for Black Panther’s 1966 Marvel in-troduction) and later The Avengers, Selassie I also sought the assistance of foreigners – however, in this case, he entreatied the British.

Although Selassie I and members of his family were allowed to reside in Bath to strategise their eventual return to their homeland, Ethiopia’s Royal family were never accorded official refugee status by the UK government. Selassie I and his daughter Princess Tsehai, however, charmed all who drifted into their satellite.

Members of the African diaspora residing in Britain made pilgrimages to meet the exiled emperor and pledge whatever assistance they could and the courtesy and generosity of the local populace served to endear them to the Selassie family.

Indeed, His Imperial Majesty and his family were overwhelmed with invitations from anti-fascist sympathisers the length and breadth of Britain. Everywhere, except of course, Westminster. With the outbreak of the World War II in 1939, Neville Chamberlain – who was weak against Nazism – was replaced with the type of British bulldog more than willing to combating fascism wherever he found it and Winston Churchill provided copious arms and a coterie of advis- ers who sailed with Selassie I to Egypt.

The liberating party were met by a contingent of African sympathisers who became the first adherents and participants in a remarkable odyssey which continually swelled as more sympathisers were armed as the liberating party headed east to Selassie I’s homeland.


HERO: Letitia Wright in Black Panther

Once his trans-continental cadre joined forces with the ongoing Ethiopian resistance movement and proceeded to dominate a brace of conflicts across Addis Ababa and several lowland regions, the fascists were definitively routed from Ethiopia in May 1941, a victory many claim undoubtedly turned the tide of the conflict in Europe.

By 1963 Selassie I had embarked on his second state visit to the US, where he was feted by president John F Kennedy and courted by contingents of the American public in a manner unprecedented by any visiting head of an African state.

Harry Belafonte described the first visit as “mind-blowing...It was the first time any of us had seen a white man bow to a black man, never mind that it was the President (Dwight D Eisenhower) of the United States...”

During the second visit Selassie I is believed to have voiced an opinion about the failed coup against him during the previous year and also vented his displeasure at the manner in which prime minister Patrice Lumumba was unseated in The Congo during 1960. There are no details of what took place in the talks where these issues were discussed.

However, American investigative journalist Nick Turse claims US fingerprints are on the handle of every coup or attempted coup which has taken place in Africa since World War II. What is also beyond dispute is the content of the speech Selassie I delivered to the United Nations in New York during October 1963 (“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior is toppled and abandoned...”), as it was immortal- ised by Bob Marley in the 1976 composition, ‘War’.

Given that Lee and artist Jack Kirby had already tasted success with their groundbreaking re-interpretation of the superhero canon and the re-constitution of the mythology which headed the genre with the likes of Fantastic Four, Avengers, Dr Strange and others, their next generation of superheroes had to similarly take old tracts and make them sound fresh and new.

Marvel could already boast having the first (and at that point still the most) significant African- American character in comics with Gabe Jones’ role in ‘Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’, who wiped the floor with Nazis during World War II.

So, theoretically, T’Challa with his non-colonised kingdom of Wakanda (an imaginary map indicates it is located on the north east of the African continent midway between Sudan to its north and Democratic Republic of the Congo to its south with Ethiopia to its east but surrounded by other fictional entities, such as Azania, Narobia and Canaan; capital city Birnin Zana also bears a remarkable resemblance to Rwanda’s Kigali) and the all-female warrior corps the Dora Milaje (including their Tatu Beytel-inflected Princess Regent Intelligence Division Executive).

Furthermore, the never-ending procession of nazi-esque nemeses including Caspar Klaue, Ulysses Klaw, the Supremacists, Barricade and Stilletto committed to destroying Wakanda for its symbolic representation and taking possession of its mineral wealth.

Additionally, there is an array of disaffected indigenous counter- revolutionaries such as Erik Kill- monger, Man-Ape, Madam Slay, The People and Malice which imbue the theoretical antecedents with greater credibility the closer one looks.

Social function website Eventbrite is resplendent this month with a plethora of gatherings in celebration of the movie, advocating attendees “dress as their favourite character”. Perhaps many of these participants won’t care whether T’Challa is based on Obama, Mandela or anyone else. Perhaps the children benefitting from Frederick Joseph’s GoFundMe initiative will simply be happy to have had someone pay for their trip to see a cinema blockbuster.

Notwithstanding, Social anthropologist Dr William Henry, Associate Professor of Criminology/Sociology at the University of West London, cites an African literary precedent to the Wakanda fable, by way of Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, claiming that the folk tale’s lodestar Okonkwo (chief of the fictional Nigerian village Umofia) may well be a distant relative of T’Challa.

“Okonkwo’s prowess as a wrestler is described as possessing a distinctly feline component which I immediately related to T’Challa,” states Dr Henry. “Although there is no public statement linking Lee or Kirby to any familiarity with Things Fall Apart, its international popularity means one wouldn’t totally dismiss a connection,” he adds.


DREAM TEAM: T’Challa, left and sister Shuri

Perhaps no-one in Britain has pushed harder for the Black Panther movie to evolve from drawing board to full-blown production than Terry Jervis. The multi-media communications trailblazer also moonlights as an unabashed Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby devotee who pre-empted this forthcoming summer’s fad for Black Panther t-shirts by approximately 15 years.

Jervis’ west London-based JEM concern’s collaborations with Marvel (such as the 2009 groundbreaking HERO social engagement initiative, which addressed barriers modern youths might encounter through the prism of Marvel’s pageant of immortal characters) pre-date the iconic comic label’s acquisition by Disney. Jervis’ longstanding love of Marvel comics is borne out by his ability (and willingness) to provide detailed expositions of all aspects of the Marvel Universe.

Nevertheless, he has a special relationship with the Black Panther character and credits the series as the first he ever attempted to collect totally in retrospect, following his ‘discovery’ of the character during the late 1970s. It’s easy to see how he may have used his legendary reputation to gently persuade some of the studio suits and bean-counters who were initially reticent to give the production the green light.

Jervis cites the 1972 Don McGregor / Billy Graham collaboration, Panther’s Rage as a seminal moment in the genre’s development and accepts the comparisons with how musical acts such as The Beatles, Dylan, Marvin Gaye and the Wailers proclaimed the album as a more informed forum for appreciating popular music than the 45rpm single.

Panther’s Rage (which introduced alluring enfant terrible N’Jadaka/Erik Killmonger) married McGregor’s multi-faceted plot development and complex characterisation to Graham’s innovative tapestries across a story arc which unfolded throughout 14 months of issues, hallmarking the opus as progenitor of the graphic novel and definitive precursor to latter-day epics such as Civil War and End Of Time.

“Relating T’Challa to His Imperial Majesty is not as fanciful as some might seek to claim,” states Jervis. “You can still find footage of His Majesty’s 1963 state visit to the USA,” he declares. “You see dozens, perhaps hundreds of schoolchildren on several of your typical main street USA scenarios waving the flag of Ethiopia with the Imperial seal. It is rather surreal,” he states. “It’s extremely plausible that Stan Lee saw these amazing newsreels of this king of an African nation which had never been colonised who had Western dignitaries bowing before him and had a lightbulb flash in his head,” he chuckles.

Nevertheless, although Jervis applauds the movie’s indisputable contribution to the battle for wider representation in Hollywood and is enthused by the prospect of viewing sumptuous regalia crafted by award-garnering costume designer Ruth E Carter and the latest chapter in the ongoing collaborative relationship between Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, which he feels is akin to a contemporary re-visit of Scorsese/De Niro, he harbours some concern and reservations.

“We should applaud this new dawn which showcases fantasy heroes/sheroes of African heritage,” he pronounces. “The set they built in Atlanta to represent Birnin Zana sets a new benchmark for all succeeding fantasy movies,” he enthuses. “However, I also feel that we need to keep in mind that truth is often more colourful than fiction and that we need to celebrate the accomplishments of real life heroes and sheroes, such as Thomas Sankara, Bernie Grant or Claudia Jones or Queen Nzingha or Henrietta Lacks at least as vigorously as we do those of imaginary ones.”

Perhaps somewhere on an African savannah or from deep within a Nubian forest a lion roars and a panther growls in congress.

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