While much about the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther is fanciful — it is, at its core, a superhero movie — there are real-life touchstones throughout the film that can be traced back to the African continent in general and South Africa in particular.
They are as distinctive as the South African dialect spoken at times during the film, as palpable as the prosthetic left eye of one of that country’s native sons, John Kina, who appears in the film as T’Chaka, father of the main character, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
Such authentic touches are among the many reasons the film has resonated with viewers. African moviegoers flocked to see it, and in the U.S. it netted some $631.3 million in the first five weeks following its Feb. 16 release.
One reviewer wrote that it will be “one of the most influential movies of the decade,” while Kina told an interviewer that it introduces viewers to “a different African. An African that is a global figure. The African that cares and an African that gives. The African that contributes to world peace.”
The 74-year-old Kina is sadly familiar with the flip side, having grown up during apartheid. His brother was murdered by police, and he lost his eye as a result of a police beating years ago, when he returned to his native land following his stateside appearance in the 1976 anti-apartheid play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
It was Kina who suggested to Black Panther’s directors that isiXhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, be spoken at times throughout the film. That tongue is especially common in Eastern Cape Province, from which he hails.
It is an area that through the years has been marked by grinding poverty and oppression. But its people, the Xhosa, are also known for fighting off European colonial invaders during the Cape Frontier Wars in the 18th century and for producing such anti-apartheid voices as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.
They are being heard again, in a sense, in Black Panther. That gives the film authenticity, makes it resonate all the more with viewers.