Emma Espiner: Time for a Māori Black Panther

Jake the Muss seems an unlikely champion of history. But there he was, Monday night, on KaweKōrero on Māori Television advocating for greater understanding of Māori history through film. Temuera Morrison recently revived the Once Were Warriors character for an advertisement for Fox Sports. Something about rugby. Lost on me. But he was mainly on the show to talk about Black Panther. Or rather, what a Māori Black Panther might look like. 

It's a good question. I went to see the newest Marvel film on the weekend and I came away feeling like African Americans in the film industry thought: "They might not ever support another film like this, let’s throw everything at it." 

And they did. There was fury boiling under the skin of the film. They upended every trope and stereotype, raged against slavery, discrimination, Trump, colonisation, marginalisation. The token African American sidekick became token white guy and former hobbit Martin Freeman. 

The director, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, and almost everyone in the film, was African American. It reminded me of when my mum went to Gisborne last year for the first time and the thing she loved the most? Brown people doing all the jobs in town. 

When you reject one set of stereotypes, it feels normal to have others rejected too. The women in Black Panther are magnificent: warriors, characters with depth and agency and attitude. I'm a bit sad for myself now, because all the formulaic action films I've loved up until now look insipid in comparison. (I probably should have mentioned this at the start of this sort-of film review - I have very bad taste in movies).

There have been think pieces, Twitter threads and reviews all proclaiming the beauty of the cultures showcased in the film and the research that went into depicting them. This one is especially good if you’re interested:

For me, the incredible achievement was in doing that while still telling a ripper of a yarn. It wasn't just 'Marvel does National Geographic', but authentic story-telling demonstrating how achingly monocultural our blockbuster film diet is. And people loved it. US$235 million estimated in ticket sales across the US and Canada on its opening weekend. There is no excuse now for a lack of representation of non-white people and cultures in film. That’s 235 million reasons why. People want to see themselves represented. They’re hungry for it. 

I remember as a little girl colouring in the faces of the universally beige characters in my picture books, trying to create someone who looked like me. Thankfully my daughter is growing up with characters like Moana so she doesn’t have to. 

When you see someone who looks like you, it makes you realise what you can achieve.

Back to Tem though. Heta Gardiner, the host of KaweKōrero asked him if we’re ready for the Māori Black Panther. 

We’re so ready.

His vision for the context of this film was of "Māori living in a Māori world. Māori on the radio, on the TV, four Pākehā seats in Parliament. Kids going to Māori schools. Parliament having taiaha lessons before they start the debates." Taika would be involved, of course. And there is no end to the potential characters or stories to tell. He talked about one of his own tupuna, Ngātoroirangi, who did superhuman things in the stories as the navigator of Te Arawa waka. 

Fans of Jason Momoa, cast as Aquaman, might want to thank Temuera Morrison and consider the importance of representation. Momoa – who was the broody Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones, tragically killed off before his time – said in an interview recently that Temuera Morrison’s performance in Once Were Warriors is what made him want to be an actor. When you see someone who looks like you, it makes you realise what you can achieve. Think of the possibilities if we gave everyone a chance to imagine themselves as superheroes. 

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