“Black Panther,” M’Baku, and reclaiming the savage

Black Panther Winston Duke as M'Baku in "Black Panther." (Disney/Marvel)

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In terms of its racial politics, the setting of Wakanda has always been complicated. While it theoretically represents a powerful vision of Afrofuturism, it has just as frequently been the site of heightened exoticisation. This largely comes from the fact that Black Panther and Wakanda were created by white people (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) and never written by a Black writer until Christopher Priest’s 1998 run. Even up until today, the character has never been written by an African. 

So when giving Black Panther his first solo film in 2018, director Ryan Coogler and his screenwriting partner Joe Robert Cole had a gargantuan task in conceptualising a form of Wakanda that worked on screen. That it overcomes its exoticised origins, to say nothing of reclaiming them for a Black audience, is nothing short of a miracle.

Nowhere is the height of this task more clear than in Man-Ape (or M’baku as he’s called in the film). In the comics, his character is basically an amalgam of the worst Western ideas around the savagery of African men. He got his powers from eating the flesh of a mystical white Wakandan gorilla and these powers give him the strength/durability of the creatures. 

The original Man-Ape.

More often than not he’s been drawn as a hulking mass of muscle, wearing the pelt of the gorilla he killed – more creature than man. As such, any conflict between him and Black Panther became a battlefield where the ‘savagery and inhumanity’ of Africa could be vanquished by the ‘good, civilised, intelligent African’ (i.e. the African that was closest to the West’s perception of itself). 

Given the deeply racist nature of this character, it would have almost been easier for the film adaptation to ignore him entirely and I doubt many would have blamed them for it. But instead, they took on this challenge headfirst and produced something layered and interesting.

With Winston Duke as M’Baku, the deeply racist caricature of black male savagery becomes a real and interesting character. This can be seen in Duke’s performance which is consistently funny and self-aware, like when he threatens to feed Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to the children of his tribe, only to reveal they’re vegetarians. The combination of wit in the script and performance subvert the racism of the original character. 

With Winston Duke as M’Baku, the deeply racist caricature of black male savagery becomes a real and interesting character.

At the same time, they never push him far enough in the other direction to make him completely defanged, reduced to comic minstrelsy. He is still able to maintain a real sense of threat throughout. When Duke enters the early waterfall fight with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), he doesn’t feel like a goofy character but a powerful antagonist. His power is rooted in both masculine and animalistic energy. While in a lesser film this would make him a ‘savage’, he has agency in his presentation, so it feels more like a reclamation than a simple regurgitation of colonial tropes. 

The combination of these factors also allows for Duke/M’Baku to be attractive, as seen in the outburst of thirst online, coalescing on one very deliberate shot of him leaning back into his throne. With the agency granted to him, the sexuality here manages to avoid fetishistic colonial fixation, where Black bodies are lusted after as representations of raw and exotic sexuality. Coogler and Cole’s expert writing mean that M’Baku manages to walk through a minefield and come out of the other end unscathed.

It takes a lot of work to make an African tribe based on gorillas work, but Black Panther does it. Part of what makes the Jabari work is that they’re surrounded by a bunch of other groups modelled on various real African tribes. So when they’re mockingly making ape noises whenever Freeman speaks, it’s more like a subversion of a parody than a rehashing of one of the oldest racist tropes in the book. 

Black Panther
M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe. (Disney/Marvel)

That isn’t all though. Ruth E. Carter’s Oscar-winning costume design ensures that the Jabari (as well as the other tribes) have an individualised and coherent style, so they feel less like abstract notions of savagery and more like real people. The approach of reclaiming savagery reverberates throughout the entire film. This reclamation occurs both an aesthetic level, like having one of the tribal leaders wear a lip plate and on a character level, with an embrace of spiritualism and chanting. 

There are still points where you can feel that this could have gone further. This is particularly evident at the end of Black Panther, where the result of the dialectic between the insular traditional Wakandan philosophy and the violently radical and quasi-imperial ideas of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a Wakandan outreach centre rather than anything more direct. This feels very out of step with the rest of the film, feeling eerily reminiscent of the decades of foreign aid and philanthropy from Western nations that put a plaster over problems rather than pushing for structural change and reparations for historical ills. 

Black Panther
Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: Shuri (Letitia Wright) and Ramonda (Angela Bassett) Ph: Matt Kennedy ??Marvel Studios 2018

The reclamation of what had been seen as savage also provided a platform for diasporic Africans to reclaim their heritage. You saw Black Americans in daishikis and other pieces of traditional clothing that didn’t fit Western ideas of formality. 

This doesn’t mean Black Panther was solely responsible for this reclamation. African fashion designers and artists have been persistently working to increase the visibility and respect given to their craft, and decolonial scholars have been working to deconstruct the myth of African savagery for decades. But it’s undeniable that Black Panther had a massive impact on the cultural perception of Africa.

Ultimately, through the rehabilitation Man-Ape and ‘the savage’, Black Panther refuses to conform to the Western gaze and instead forges its own path.

Black Panther Trailer:

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