The Fights of Black Panther
In an early fight, Black Panther’s powers temporarily stripped and armed with a short spear and oval shaped shield (respect to Zulus, first tribe to fight with short spears), T’Challa dons a panther-like mask as he is challenged by the gorilla-skull wearing, club bearing and brutish M’Baku, because he disagrees with T’Challa’s leadership direction.
Here’s the perfect opportunity to invent two Wakanda ways of fighting: black panther isibhakela (black panther fist), a combo of leopard boxing, lion fist and Wakanda dance rhythm footwork; and gorilla lokulwa (ape fighting), a mix of large bear paw and twisting ape knuckle strikes with stomping footwork. That’d be a challenge worth fighting for, to make the duels uniquely African. Instead Coogler opted for the easy way out, run of the mill fights used by all the white superhero action films.
Like most off the BP‘s fights, a master shot had the actors do as many moves as possible, then each technique was split into coverage shots of one to three hack ‘n’ whack moves that were shot using tight shifty camera angles and snap edited together where the fight intensity wasn’t about the actors’ grit and physicality, but loud sound effects.
Point of cool interest. When the Jabaris enter the fighting arena they repetitively grunt a war chant. When I learned Okinawan goju-ryu at Cornell in 1977, my sensei, Nanatambu Bomani, who was the first man to open a karate school in Tanzania, had us use a similar war chant when we ran around the ice and snow-covered streets of Ithaca in bare feet.
However, I held out great hope for the movie’s most hyped up fighting characters, the Dora Milaje (adored ones), a cadre of strong fierce women who serve as bodyguards to the King and royal family. These tall, statuesque bald-headed women warriors who fight together as one, are under the firm command of Okoye (Danai Gurira). As it turns out, T’Challa’s love interest, the rebellious-minded Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), was once a Dora.
As seven actresses cast for fighting roles and Gurira underwent intense daily weapon training, strength and fitness regimens, and rehearsals, they developed a strong bond of togetherness. Gurira shares, “We all had to shave our heads and instantly it’s a sisterhood. It was really cool to find a beautiful grace in the Dora and their fierceness.”
For the synchronized fluid fighting moves of the Dora, the fight team taught basic staff moves and gradually incorporated more complex skills until they could perform multiple moves on command. Gurira reminisces, “It’s beautiful how the Dora have a way of fighting and moving as one where sometimes it was almost dancer-like. There’s lots of interesting formations created for when the Dora work together to defeat somebody. Our vibranium staffs are highly sophisticated and Okoye calls out her orders by using staff signals. We found grace and ferocity in these women…it was a great combination.”
The Dora were undoubtedly modelled after Africa’s most ruthless and savage women warriors, the Women Soldiers of Dahomy, who were intensely loyal to their king. Dahomy is the birthplace of the voodoo religion. Created in the mid-1600s by King Houebadji, their bravery legend peaked when they crushed the French Colonial army at the battle of Contonou in 1890. The most feared and intimidating of the five regiments were the Reapers, who although deadly with the spear, their weapon of choice was the two-hand gripped, 22-pound, 18-inch razor-sharp blade used to slice men in half with one strike. Another opportunity to feature a weapon solely African passed by the wayside.
The filmmakers are raving about Okoye’s oner, a misleading term being used by writers and filmmakers to describe a fight sequence where it’s done in one take. A oner is more properly defined as an unedited shot of around two or more minutes long, where the fight is the whole scene. Tony Jaa in The Protector (1985) and Alain Moussi in Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018) are prime examples of real oners. Charleze Theron in Atomic Blonde was close, but they used a few camouflaged editing points and cheats.
Okoye’s oner is an 11-second, 10-move sequence on a balcony during a mass brawl scene in a Korean casino. At this stage of the film and on, some camera choreography mirrors the way Hong Kong fights were shot in the ’80s and ’90s where the camera shifts to the fighter’s body’s parts doing the techniques…shot of a kick, tilt up to a fist, pan with fist hitting target, pan back on fist to attacker’s body, tilt down to the foot. Worthy tries but the DP didn’t know when to slightly pull back for smooth continuity. Instead, they used snappy tilts and pans, and dizzying earthquake camera, so we don’t see the actors’ efforts.
The crime of Black Panther‘s fight and camera choreography is that it hid, diluted and shortchanged the hard work and dedication the actors put themselves through for the film. Plus, there’s nothing cutting edge or new about the fights even though the tools of African history for unique combative duels were right in front of their eyes.
Yet it’s key to point out that Black Panther‘s shortcomings don’t lessen the socio-political commentaries or the cultural identity and pride effects that the movie is having on African American souls…and that matters most.