While reading, and enjoying, Carvell Wallace’s piece on Black Panther for The New York Times magazine, I was halted in my tracks by a sudden reference to the sacred watermelon of Lesotho.
The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, visited the mountainous, landlocked country a few years ago, and it served as his main inspiration for the Kingdom of Wakanda. He tells a story of being driven around the Lesotho hills, dishing out watermelon to shepherds. The shepherds are described as accepting the watermelon ‘gingerly’, wrapping it in cloth and tucking it away, ‘as though it were a religious totem’. The image evoked for me, a South African, not beautiful but pragmatic Lesotho but something more like Star Wars.
Coogler reports being informed by his driver, a woman identified only as a former lover of Brenda Fassie: ‘Watermelon is sacred. It hydrates, it nourishes and its seeds are used for offerings.’
As children growing up in the States, desperate to avoid ridicule and the minstrel stereotype, Wallace and Coogler had the same resolution: never eat watermelon in front of white people. Wallace concludes: ‘Centuries of demonising and ridiculing blackness have, in effect, forced black people to abandon what was once sacred.’
Apart from the awkwardness I feel at how the Basotho shepherds are described in the article, I was also struck by the opportune neatness of this watermelon analogy. I had never heard of the sacred nature of watermelon. Neither, it seems, has Twitter. The odd anecdote hadn’t make as much of a splash as I expected, given the current Black Panther mania in South Africa, but there are a few tweets, mainly by puzzled Basotho:
Turning to Google, I found some dodgy references to watermelon being cultivated in Egypt as a ‘sacred food’ 5000 years ago — seeds and paintings of watermelons have apparently been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs, including Tutankhamun’s; to melons of different sorts being important to people in the Kalahari and across Africa in general; and to watermelon seeds being used in Basotho art and clothing, but nothing stating specifically, or even vaguely, that watermelon is sacred in Lesotho.
In his work so far — Fruitvale Station (2013), based on the true story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was killed by a police officer in 2009; Creed (2015), a spin-off and sequel to the Rocky series that tells the story of Adonis Johnson Creed, Apollo Creed’s son; and Black Panther — Coogler has explored questions of African and black identity. But he had never been to Africa until he signed up to direct Black Panther. In The New York Times interview, he speaks about ‘how his parents prepared him for the world’:
‘You know, you got to have the race conversation … And you can’t have that without having the slavery conversation. And with the slavery conversation comes a question of, okay, so what about before that? And then when you ask that question, they got to tell you about a place that nine times out of 10 they’ve never been before. So you end up hearing about Africa, but it’s a skewed version of it. It’s not a tactile version.’
I’m delighted that people in Black Panther speak isiXhosa, even if the pronunciation, and the ‘general African’ accents in general, make me cringe, and even if Wakanda is supposed to be in East Africa. I’m delighted that a film like Black Panther has happened, and here’s hoping that it will lead to more, better films in the same vein. I’m pleased that the filmmakers were inspired by African art and architecture, but did they have to be inspired by Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Johannesburg and Timbuktu, as production designer Hannah Beachler says they were (in an extremely tone-deaf interview with Collider)? I wouldn’t dare make an American movie inspired and combining the aesthetics of Florida, South Dakota, Utah, Maine and Santa Fe — and that’s one country. A film made by combining the aesthetics of Durban, Joburg and Cape Town would be a mess, but when it’s done on a continental scale it somehow becomes acceptable.
It reminds me of the Wonder Woman phenomenon. I’m happy the movie happened, but the numerous problems it has kind of spoiled the experience, and ultimately, in the category ‘superhero movies of 2017’, Thor: Ragnarok was a bigger feminist statement.
I know we need Black Panther, but Africa is not a country.