Black Panther’s weekend premiere was spectacular. Everyone has been talking about the movie and it’s cast of characters since the first nationwide showing. All kinds of opinions are flying around, good and bad, but there seems to be one thing we can all agree on. M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe is fine as all get out. *in my auntie voice*
Played by Winston Duke, M’Baku actually got a huge makeover for the film. One of the most notable updates is that he does not go by the name Man-Ape, though they still worship the ape god, Hanuman. I won’t bore you with comic book history but it shouldn’t be hard to see what may have been wrong with an African super-villain named Man-Ape. Instead, M’Baku is molded into the strong noble leader of Jabari land.
Duke’s, 6’5″ frame gave the crew little work to do in making him appear to hover over his cast mates. And the Jabari tribesmen are nothing to scoff at. They first enter the movie with the sounds of their chants. Before we see them, we’re aware of their fierceness. As they emerge, big Black bodies fill the screen. Thick beards surround their mouths as they grunt, making their presence known. The first time I saw this scene, I was wide-eyed and intrigued. I don’t usually see many depictions of big Black men in the media unless it’s on the 50 yard line.
I sat next to my big Black beau in the theater and watched as M’Baku moved his large frame in fight scenes, keeping up with his smaller opponents. The Jabari tribesmen grunt and “bark” several times throughout the movie. They show joy in taking up space and projecting their voices from the mountaintop and in the fields of battle. Winston Duke steals the show several times as M’Baku makes jokes (he laughs at himself) and doesn’t entertain conversation he’s not interested in.
Fierce, strong, jovial and carefree.
Their existence on a mountainside in a hidden African country may give the Jabari men freedom to be. Big Black men in the real world don’t have that luxury. If you’re a Black man over 5’11” and 200 pounds, life isn’t the easiest to navigate. You are expected to shrink yourself and do whatever it takes to use up less space. Don’t be too Black. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too loud.
When a big Black man walks in, mothers grab their daughter’s hand and pull them off the elevator. They speed up and try to get in or out before he has a chance to catch up. Even men grow silent when he comes into view. All eyes are on the big Black guy, wondering what harm he will bring. And he knows this, so he spends a great deal of time and effort trying to make those who are not as big and Black feel more comfortable.
Black folks in general know what it’s like to chip away at bits and pieces of ourselves to make the world around us comfortable. We tame our hair, soften our voice, use Anglo-sounding names to appear less threatening in the warped minds of racists and people so influenced by the racist system we’re in, they don’t even notice. Our mothers told us to hush in public, don’t laugh too loud or draw extra attention to our Blackness that already screamed and hollered. And when you’re as big as an NFL player or a young Charles Barkley, blending in is even more impossible.
Granted, sometimes women exhibit fear and practice safety measures in the presence of men. But historically special effort has been made to convince white women in particular to fear the big Black man. Birth of the Nation and the like attempted to show the world our men were big dumb animals who were vicious and uncivilized. Even in Black Panther, a white character refers to the Wakandan’\s as savages. There is a constant dehumanization that occurs when your mere existence incites fear. And all of that dehumanization and wondering if the white lady switched seats because she mistrusts men or because she’s a racist piece of trash, is draining.
The Jabari men give us a look at what beautiful big Black men can do without the limitations and constraints of anti-Black racism and the power of the white dominant culture. They are boisterously and unapologetically themselves. The boxes the world puts Black men in are nowhere to be found so they move and talk and laugh and live without having to tuck away for the benefit of others. Hell, they don’t even think to care about what white folks may make of them worshiping an ape god.
Imagine what Jabari land would’ve been like for Eric Gardner and Mike Brown. Imagine what it would be like for Black men to express without fear that their emotions or voice or body language was going to make those around them recoil. Imagine the freedom of existing in their rawest form and being as big and Black as they want to be.