“Africans on film and TV are typically one of three things: the object of the joke (The Gods Must Be Crazy), all but invisible (The African Queen) or, more often, in situations too dark to find humor – think victims of the slave trade, of genocide, or of war. Black Panther is revolutionary in a number of ways: authentic use of African language! Distinct tribes within the same country! Africans use computers too! But the way it found and used humor amidst its larger messages made it feel not just entertaining, and not just groundbreaking, but also a bit like home.”
My parents, Rose and Kofi Marfo, are two of the funniest people I know. Mom’s humor is drier and more sarcastic, while Dad’s is sillier and more likely to end in giggling. Their senses of humor informed mine in a way that felt perfectly normal- but always came as a surprise to friends who met them. “Your parents are funny!” they’d say with a tone that betrayed disbelief. And it wasn’t until I saw Black Panther, a movie in which I saw – in addition to so much else – funny Africans, that I understood why their voices took that tone: we do an awful job of letting Africans be funny.
Don’t misunderstand me: we have an immense number of funny African-Americans. Black people often have the opportunity to joke. But Africans? Africans on film and TV are typically one of three things: the object of the joke (The Gods Must Be Crazy), all but invisible (The African Queen) or, more often, in situations too dark to find humor – think victims of the slave trade, of genocide, or of war. Marvel movies, as their comics did before them, use the extraordinary to examine the ordinary and familiar; the goal has always been to see the world as it is, through the lens of something amazing. What’s more, as Marvel movies lean more into the idea of using humor, we’re getting movies that are simply more fun to watch. And I can’t tell you how pleased I was that this movie got to embrace that element of the Marvel Universe’s evolution. Black Panther is revolutionary in a number of ways: authentic use of African language! Distinct tribes within the same country! Africans use computers too! But the way it found and used humor amidst its larger messages made it feel not just entertaining, and not just groundbreaking, but also a bit like home.
The two standout sources of comic relief come from two characters who couldn’t be more different. In Shuri, sister to King T’Challa and chief technologist of Wakanda, I found not just a willingness and ability to find lightness in the most traditional of circumstances (for I, too, want things to move along when the occasion calls for corsets) but also the spark of humor that’s required to engage in challenging circumstances. In the lab, preparing her brother for battle, her simultaneous displays of tech prowess and immersion in Internet and meme culture shows how competence and humor can effortlessly co-exist. That message felt especially poignant not just as a means to disrupt assumptions of “angry Black women,” but also of teens who can have fun and create change- a narrative that felt especially important on the film’s opening weekend.
A similarly pervasive narrative – that of the threatening Black man – is confounded in M’Baku, the film’s intimidating but ultimately relatable leader of the Jabari tribe. In contrast to his persona in the comics, M’Baku finds a lightness that seemingly belies his gruff and dominant statue. M’Baku’s sense of humor is revealed later, after these other traits are already introduced and solidified, cementing the idea that black men – and yes, African men – can contain multitudes in a way that we see often in characters of other origins. Frankly, his moments of humor mattered more to me for that reason. Can Africa be a place where survival instincts are needed? Sure, though in ways different than most popular culture has portrayed it. Are there moments and places to find humor beyond or despite those circumstances? Absolutely, there are. M’Baku can challenge a rival tribe for supremacy AND joke about dispensing with a colonizer (all while being a vegetarian, by the way) in the same conversation; those extremes can exist in the same, African, person. And it doesn’t seem off-base for me to hope that this onscreen portrayal will create nuance for Africans offscreen; it’s harder to dismiss someone you can relate to or see as multifaceted, like Shuri or M’Baku, or any other complex – and funny – characters that showed up in this movie.
There are dozens of other, smaller moments that contribute to the film’s ability to subvert the expectations of Africans as stoic and serious. But what it ultimately adds up to is this: here, Africans aren’t the punchline to the joke. They get to make the jokes. And that, as with so many other elements of Black Panther, is comforting. It’s authentic to me as the direct descendant of African people. And, as with so many other elements of this record-smashing film…it’s revolutionary.