So, do the the fight scenes in Black Panther have any basis in real-world African martial arts?
Glad you asked ...
Appropriately for fight choreography in a major Marvel superhero movie, the fights seen in Black Panther are highly stylized, often featuring physically impossible techniques and maneuvers. Most of the fight choreography is “movie-fu” - a combination of camera-friendly techniques drawn from a wide range of mostly Asian styles such as Chinese wushu, which is a martial performing art. However (SPOILER ALERT!) the ritual combats between T’Challa and his challengers at Warrior Falls, in which T’Challa is temporarily “de-powered” to ensure a fair contest of skill against skill, are (relatively) realistic and show the influence of real African martial arts.
African cultures have produced a diverse range of fighting styles and combat sports and I’ve had the privilege of studying two styles of African descent. The first was capoeira, which is an acrobatic, dance-like Afro-Brazilian art. Capoeira is undoubtedly the best known African diasporic martial art outside of its own cultural context, having been featured in a number of movies and video games as well as being widely practiced in many countries.
My second style was Ukungcweka or Zulu stick fighting, which makes use of three weapons wielded simultaneously; the left hand holds both a small shield and a long, light “blocking stick”, and the right hand wields the induku, a weighted striking stick about the length of a walking cane.
There are several authentic African fighting styles that specialize in punching, kicking and/or throwing and grappling techniques. One of the most spectacular is Senegalese Laamb, which combines fist-fighting with wrestling. Laamb fighters can win by knock-out or by successfully throwing their opponent, as shown in this video:
As mentioned earlier, Brazilian capoeira is an African diasporic martial art that is believed to have perpetuated and developed a style (or combination of styles) that are now largely extinct on the African continent. As much a recreational dance/game and social ritual as it is a fighting style, capoeira is famous for its tricky acrobatics:
The influence of capoeira can be seen in the Black Panther’s tactic of employing deceptive kicks, especially from cat-like quadrupedal fighting positions, as when the hero drops down onto his hands before launching a devastating attack with his feet.
King T’Challa’s weapons of choice and fighting style in his ritual duels on Warrior Falls are clearly based on Zulu stick fighting and similar styles:
The style used by T’Challa is actually an example of retro-designing an Afrofuturistic fighting style based on real-world traditions. While modern Zulu stick fighting is practiced as a sport and ritual, its historical precedent was literally a warrior art. Rather than a weighted stick, which is dangerous enough, the historical method employed a short spear called an iklwa, said to have been invented by the almost legendary chief Shaka kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu.
T’Challa’s combination of shield and vibranium short spear, shown below, show the influence of Chief Shaka’s style:
Quite a wide variety of other weapons are shown in the movie, most notably the Dora Milaje’s broad-bladed spears. Although most contemporary African martial arts do not employ literally lethal weapons such as spears, swords and axes, the Dora Milaje’s flamboyant style may echo the Donga staff fighting of the Suri tribes:
While the original African warrior arts of swordplay, etc. have mostly been lost over time, African-American martial arts expert Da’mon Stith is currently attempting to revive some of them, pressure-testing his conclusions using facsimiles of the real weapons and modern protective equipment. In this video, Mr. Stith and a colleague test the use of the ancient Egyptian khopesh or “sickle-sword” against a curved shamshir:
Hopefully, the success of the Black Panther movie will also spur a new awareness of, and respect for the diverse martial arts of the African diaspora. If I’ve whetted your appetite, do check out this VICE article, which goes into more detail on various traditional styles.