My thoughts on Black Panther: Is the English language too bland?

Last night, my family and I watched Black Panther at the cinema’s. It was my second time doing so. I was inspired to write this article while watching the film.

There is no doubt that Black Panther is a film that has resonated with Black/African audiences. The nearly all- black cast and African setting is a significant desertion from typical Hollywood action flicks. Ryan Coogler, cineaste extraordinaire and acclaimed director of Black Panther, wanted audiences globally to revel in their heritage. Speaking at a cast panel Q&A , he made it clear that having an African heritage is incredibly cool.

“…I felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to tell this story, in this particular way.” — Ryan Coogler.

Black Panther Cast at the London Premier. Credit: Collider

When I watched ‘Captain America: Civil War’ for the first time, I was expecting the usual action packed, spandex melee’s that we have come to expect from Marvel movies. This time around, there was a small and unexpected twist in the film. Frankly, I was shocked when T’Challa spoke to Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in an AFRICAN accent. That was such an iconic scene that was made even more captivating when T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) greeted his father, T’Chacka (John Kani)in the South African language of Xhosa. My heart swelled with pride! The director, Ryan Coogler, found himself ‘emotionally moved’ by that scene while they were rehearsing it. And just like him, that scene resonated with me to my core.

That scene reminded me of my childhood. I could barely remember the last time I heard an African language in a movie, let alone a MARVEL movie. Back when I was a 10 year old living in the Southern African country of Botswana, I used to watch scandalous South African soap opera’s, as 10 year old’s do. There was a show called ‘Isidingo’ that dealt with the issues that face ordinary South African’s, it had all the sex and scandal that viewer’s in the UK would expect to find in East Ender’s. Xhosa was one of the languages frequently spoken on the show and naturally I grew to understand it — even without the subtitles.

I took a quick selfie before watching the film, 25/03/2018.

English is the most common language spoken around the world, and this is reflected in mainstream media. The country of Wakanda potrayed in the film, was never colonised and as a result, their native language of Xhosa flourished. That’s why the protagonists in the film alternate between the two languages.

That’s the frustrating thing about the English language, it can strip away the unique qualities of many non- English languages. In my super diverse circle of friends, we often agree that certain phrases and jokes are only funny in native languages and ‘not as funny’ or just plain bland when translated to English. Sometimes there just isn’t an English equivalent phrase, or it doesn’t make sense in English. In fact, we go as as far as calling it the laziest language in the world, very little effort is required to speak English. Native English speaker’s sometimes struggle to  pronounce Non- English names. In school, I would watch in shock and amazement as certain teacher’s butchered my name during class registration.

Language is at the core of identity, it feels good to see it explored in such an intelligent way on the big screen. The success of this movie shows that there is a thirst for this kind of representation on screen. This article focused on the languages/accent used in the film, but my argument can extend to the costumes; music; the setting and themes of the film.

If the film had been directed by a white, middle aged man, as are 99% of the films in Hollywood, would such a significant story be depicted so poignantly? A story that so elegantly traverses between racial and cultural lines? I don’t think so. Representation on screen as well as behind the scenes is what made Black Panther so special.

Written by: Siba Munsanje.

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