Streaming: in search of the films that inspired Black Panther
From a Senegalese road movie to lesbian blues goddesses, dig deep online and you’ll find gems of the less moneyed African-disapora cinema
’CHALLA rules all in the Blu-ray and VOD domain this week, as new releases have largely dodged the rampaging path of Black Panther (Disney, 12A) – which may no longer be the highest-grossing film of the year, but could remain unchallenged as 2018’s most statement-making, gauntlet-throwing blockbuster, the formula film that comes closest to flipping the formula. If that’s a qualified claim, that’s because Ryan Coogler’s impressively hungry, purposeful comic-book spectacular is still operating within a straitjacket, albeit one of chic, futuristic design: it’s stifled, particularly in a protracted, placeto-place first half, by the boxticking rigours of in-house Marvel storytelling. When freed from the business of franchise-founding, however, it pounces, bounds and even, in less feline fashion, flies: its flashes of political conscience, no-nonsense gender parity and glimmering Afrofuturist aesthetic feel collectively new. Whatever its other compromises, Black Panther is a widest-possibleaudience juggernaut that leads with its blackness rather than smuggling it through big-studio customs.
How the film’s impact will shift or rearrange the identity politics of commercial Hollywood moviemaking remains to be seen. In the meantime, we can hope its success encourages some crossover interest in the less moneyed black cinema that inspired it. Perhaps that’s optimistic, though either way curious viewers will have to do more digging in the streaming archives than they should to find substantial reserves of black-directed and black-oriented films. Take, for example, Touki Bouki, the raw, seductive, cooler-than-being-cool 1973 Senegalese road odyssey that arguably contributed a hair of DNA to Black Panther’s African heroism, and was visually quoted by Beyoncé in her most recent tour marketing: a genuinely iconic Afro classic, yet not streamable anywhere in the UK. (The US edition of Filmstruck has it; here’s hoping ours catches up soon.)
It may not stretch to Touki Bouki, but the BFI Player’s excellent Black Star collection, a still-growing offshoot from their 2016 cinema season of the same name, is the kind of library more specialist streaming outlets could stand to build. The brief is broad and so is the range: obviously indispensable US canon titles such as Do the Right Thing and Moonlight, cris de coeur from modern Africa such as Of Good Report and A Screaming Man, odd cultural artefacts such as Car Wash and For Queen and Country, starring Denzel Washington as an unlikely embodiment of 1980s London urban alienation. The underseen pick of the menu: Charles Burnett’s angry, on-edge, morally creased cop thriller The Glass Shield, which may have been made in 1994 but feels notably current in its examination of racial persecution by (and within) the police force.
Those inclined to dig deeper still, meanwhile, might consider giving the little-heralded streaming service Kweli.tv a look. Billed as a curated collection of African diaspora content – including films, documentaries, TV and shorts from around the world – it’s a mixed but often revelatory bag. Given that it’s a Us-based service, inconsistent international licensing can lead to some roadblocks: I was disappointed to find Raoul Peck’s sterling political biopic Lumumba barred in the UK, but had better luck with the genuinely bewitching, west African folk-inspired animation Kirikou and the Sorceress. Subscription fees (the conversion of $6 a month) are low enough to make such spottiness forgivable, though pay-per-view options are also available. It’s not as if you’ll find such fascinating nuggets as T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness, a half-hour short on lesbian blues goddesses of the 1920s, anywhere else. That’s a long way from Black Panther, but here’s to gates, and minds, opening.
‘Cooler than being cool’: a scene from Touki Bouki, featuring the skull motorbike that inspired Beyoncé and Jay-z’s On the Run II tour poster.
The ‘Afrofuturist’ aesthetic of Black Panther, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright.